With Tyler Eifert and Ryan Hewitt shelved for the time being, the Bengals need one of their less-heralded acquisitions from the 2015 Draft to step up big this coming season.
With the 157th-overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, the Bengals got their second tight end of the draft in the form of Auburn's C.J. Uzomah. Even though few scouting services had Uzomah pegged as a draftable prospect, the Bengals liked what they saw in the 6'5", 264-pound athletic pass-catcher enough to spend a fifth-round pick on him.
During his college career, Uzomah had 29 career receptions for 435 yards and seven touchdowns during his four years with the Tigers. He also did so while playing with future and current NFL receivers Ricardo Louis, Sammie Coates, Quan Bray and D'haquille Williams, so it's easy to see why the tight end was essentially ignored in that offense.
Uzomah was primarily a blocking tight end in an Auburn offense that rarely featured tight ends, but he did catch six touchdowns during his final two college seasons. After playing in the Medal of Honor All-Star game, Uzomah was invited to participate in the Senior Bowl, which helped him catch the eye of Bengals scouts.
That may have helped lead Uzomah to becoming a developmental prospect clearly needing a lot of work to become an NFL contributor. Another big reason why the Bengals may have liked him was they viewed him as a replacement for guys like Alex Smith, Kevin Brock and Reggie Kelly who were serviceable blocking tight ends for the team.
Cincinnati uses either a blocking tight end or an extra offensive tackle in many of their formations, a role that it looked like Uzomah was bound for. However, with Tyler Kroft being the only viable pass-catching tight end right now (as Eifert is out due to injury and Hewitt recovers from minor, non-football surgery), they need a guy like Uzomah to be a better pass-catcher and red-zone target this year, just as we saw at times during training camp last year:
Here's a nice C.J. Uzomah backshoulder catch from Josh Johnson. https://t.co/mTsHMF5C24— Brennen Warner (@BrennenWarner) August 12, 2015
As it turned out, Uzomah would earn a spot on the 53-man roster, despite catching just two passes for 13 yards in the preseason. His most memorable play was more of a gaffe after he dropped what looked like a sure touchdown pass from Keith Wenning.
Maybe not entirely his fault, but not a good impression from Uzomah. https://t.co/7ydbeUN6w4— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) August 15, 2015
Those kinds of drops have still plagued Uzi in OTAs thus far, and he knows it's something he has to fix if he wants to make an impact.
"Just don't let it ever happen again," Uzomah told ESPN's Coley Harvey. "We've had that happen once this OTA. We get an earful in meeting rooms. We make sure it happens once. It's never something that's a big thing. It's kind of like, 'All right, we didn't notice the front the defense was in.' Something like that. It's kind of a gray area. Once we cleared that up, we're usually in the clear and make the adjustment from there."
With the Bengals having a new offensive coordinator in Ken Zampese, that could lead to a clean slate for Uzomah and a chance to play more in his second NFL season. That is, if he can avoid the same issues that plagued him as a rookie. Zampese is making it clear those won't fly with him.
"There are no mental errors," Zampese said via ESPN. "Every ball that comes your way, you make a play on it. And the ones that are 50/50, you make more of those than the other guy."
The Bengals will certainly need more from Uzomah than the one pass for four yards he caught in the 2015 regular season. Other than that, he got occasional snaps as a blocking tight end and even a backup h-back. He didn't fair too well in the h-back role though, which prompted the Bengals to move rookie lineman Jake Fisher to h-back when Ryan Hewitt went down with an injury against the Broncos in Week 16.
That constant shifting around as a rookie made it a tough year for Uzomah, and he's now hoping to focus more on one position in hopes of making an impact there.
"The hardest thing is being moved around a lot," Uzomah said. "Last year it was just, 'All right, you're going to be this position, like a wing position. Learn that.' Now it's like, know the wing, know fullback, know the Y, know everything."
While the Bengals like versatility and it's important for Uzomah to be able to know the full range of positions a tight end can play for the Bengals, it can't be easy to balance so many different roles during a rookie season. Uzomah has shown flashes of being a good blocking tight end, but not enough that that his spot on this year's roster is locked up, even with the injuries to Hewitt and Eifert. A golden opportunity for a bigger role on the Bengals' offense is there for Uzomah to take, and the Bengals need him to take it.