The Cincinnati Bengals have a lot of questions facing the tight end position as the team heads into their summer break.
Unfortunately, that's become an annual rite of passage as injuries seem to keep this position in a constant state of flux in the offseason. Much of it centers around Pro Bowler Tyler Eifert, one of the game's best tight ends when healthy, but also one of the NFL's most oft-injured superstars.
After Eifert, there aren't exactly the kind of proven players you'd like to see at this position. The Bengals did grab Rutgers tight Tyler Kroft with the 85th-overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft in hopes he could be a solid No. 2 behind Eifert.
Kroft hauled in 67 passes for 842 yards and four touchdowns during his sophomore and junior seasons, then declared for the draft in 2015, forgoing his senior season. That offseason, the Bengals fell in love with Kroft during pre-draft workouts and interviews.
Once the Bengals snagged him in Round 3, head coach Marvin Lewis called Kroft "the best of the TE prospects" in that 2015 Draft, which turned out to be very underwhelming at the position overall, so it may end up being the case.
Kroft played in every game as a rookie while making six starts. Some of those starts came while Eifert was injured with a stinger and concussion late in the season, and Kroft was serviceable in place. But because Eifert had a Pro Bowl season alongside A.J. Green, who also drew many of the targets from quarterback Andy Dalton, that led to Kroft being relegated to mostly blocking tight end duties for much of the year.
That was a role he was decent in, but will need to improve upon this offseason while also taking on a bigger role in the passing game. When called upon, Kroft caught 11 passes for 129 yards (11.7 yards) and a touchdown on 14 targets.
Despite being the de facto starter while Eifert is out, it's no guarantee Kroft will be the No. 1 guy after his so-so rookie season. There's just not enough of a sample size of him to know if Kroft is ready for that kind of role.
If Kroft can't be the kind of pass-catcher the Bengals need him to be, the team may just adjust their offense to not use the tight ends as passing options much and instead use blocking ends to help the running game. If that happens, that opens the door for C.J. Uzomah and Matt Lengel to play more.
After the Bengals took Uzomah with the 157th-overall pick of the 2015 Draft, he went on to rarely play as a rookie while getting snaps at tight end and h-back, not particularly excelling in either role. A big reason why the Bengals liked him was they viewed him as a replacement for what guys like Alex Smith, Kevin Brock and Reggie Kelly gave them as blocking tight ends.
Cincinnati uses either a blocking tight end or an extra offensive tackle in many of their formations, and they think Uzomah can come in and give them another body that could block, maybe catch a few passes and possibly be a good red-zone target:
Uzomah caught just one pass for four yards in the regular season. He's got a lot of potential, but is so raw that you can't expect him to contribute much this year, nor guarantee his spot on the 53-man roster. Though, Marvin Lewis does seem to like what he sees in Uzomah.
"Well, he’s going to go play live football, and that’s where we’re going to see how he’s developed, because out here in shorts, nobody looks better," Lewis said of Uzomah this week, while laughing. "When we get an opportunity to play live football, we'll get a chance to judge him."
As for Lengel, he spent 2015 on the practice squad, so he has about as much experience with this offense as Uzomah does, though, no live game experience. Lengel's college career was derailed by season-ending injuries in 2012 and 2013, resulting in only 34 career receptions (16 in 2014) for 367 yards receiving and two touchdowns, both of which came in 2011.
That led to Lengel going undrafted in 2015, but the Bengals quickly signed him in hopes of the 6'7", 272-pound physical specimen developing into a blocking tight end for them. He never got many reps in training camp or the preseason last year, so it's hard to tell what exactly he can give the offense.
The only other true tight end on the roster is John Peters. In 2015, Peters became the first player from Cincinnati’s Mount St. Joseph University (NCAA Division III) to sign an NFL contract. He earned it after participating on a tryout basis in Bengals rookie minicamp.
Though projected as a tight end in the NFL, Peters played receiver in college while amassing 21 touchdowns in 23 games over three seasons. The 6'8", 261-pound Peters hauled in 24 passes for 424 yards and nine scores over eight games in his final collegiate season.
But Peters rarely even got practice reps during the preseason last year, leading to him being cut before re-joining the team this offseason. You would think if Peters has NFL talent, he'll not only get to show it off in camp this year, but perhaps even earn playing time if and when Eifert is out.
After Eifert, the most developed player among the tight ends is Ryan Hewitt. An undrafted free agent out of Stanford in 2014, Hewitt fought his way onto the final 53-man roster after a training camp battle with Nikita Whitlock. He went on to have a productive rookie season, enough so that the Bengals believed he may become the NFL's best fullback.
Hewitt has been the team's starting fullback/h-back for the past two seasons, and he's done well enough that it sounds like the Bengals are making him a priority to get an extension for this offseason. He's one of the youngest players on the roster (25), not to mention a guy who in theory does not have a lot of wear and tear on his body.
In two years, Hewitt has caught 18 of 26 targets for 185 yards as he's rarely been used in the passing game, but has shown enough promise in that role to think he could handle more opportunities. It's not crazy to think he may actually battle Tyler Kroft for the No. 1 tight end spot if Eifert is out to start the season.
In other words, this may be the hardest position on the roster to project going into training camp and the early portion of the regular season. In the end, I think the Bengals keep just three true tight ends again and use Hewitt as essentially the fourth end while Eifert is out, which hopefully isn't more than a game or two.