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Bengals mailbag: Haskins’ ceiling, Lewis’ 2019 status and the future at tight end

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The Bengals are in transition mode once again, as the 2019 offseason is approaching. Their tight end group is talented, but injuries and contract statuses leave major questions at the spot. How much will that even matter with a potential coaching search on the horizon?

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The Cincinnati Bengals have already punched their tickets to stay home this winter, as they attempt to regroup. Their goal should not only be to find the groove from a few years ago, but also to improve upon the quality seasons that spanned from 2011-2015.

We’ve received a bunch of quality questions from readers of Cincy Jungle and listeners of our Orange and Black Insider podcast. They have come from a variety of different avenues, as they continually address multiple issues the team is facing in a critical 2019 offseason.

You can shoot yours to us on Twitter (@CincyJungle, @BengalsOBI, @CJAnthonyCUI), or by joining our live broadcasts of OBI and submitting them through the various channels associated with the program.

Our thanks to all of those who submitted questions this week!

*****

This has been talked about frequently, and though it’s obviously relevant, we won’t over-beat the dead horse here. Cincinnati is at a huge crossroads this year and head coach is one of the areas in the dissections will take place.

Marvin Lewis has done a lot of admirable things for the Bengals, but the team has seemingly hit a wall since that 2015 Wild Card loss. They continually lose to the better teams in the league and embarrass themselves on the biggest stages.

Yet, we’ve seen Lewis wrestle power away from the stubborn Brown family and turn this team on its head from “The Lost Decade”. You hate to see a business act on fear, but if the next hire has the prowess of a Bruce Coslet or Dave Shula...yikes.

As The Clash would say: should he stay or should he go?

The real question that folks are having now is if Mike Brown has already made his mind up about 2019, or if he will let these next two games play into a coaching decision. Last year, Brown pointed to two season-ending wins over two playoff-bound teams as the catalyst for Lewis’ new contract this past January.

However, the team has a friendly opt-out and this seems to be as good of a time as any to say sayonara. If the team loses out and has double-digit losses in 2018, it would be easy to point to a regression and make Lewis the scapegoat.

But, what if the team wins one or both of the next two games?

For those not keeping a close eye on the schedule, Cincinnati faces its two biggest rivals in the Browns and Steelers to end this season. While some are pulling for a tank job by the Bengals to get better draft positioning, others would like to see the team go down fighting and knock one or both of these teams out of the postseason.

If they do and the front office hasn’t decided on Lewis yet, what would be a enough for him to be kept? One win? Two?

Conventional wisdom has a 6-10 finish (and the most probably outcome) ushering in a new era in The Queen City. Five straight postseason appearances and no playoff wins, to be followed by three straight losing seasons shouldn’t sit well with anyone in the ivory towers.

But, we have to remember how this particular ownership group feels about the Browns. For the entirety of the Lewis regime, the Bengals have largely owned “The Battle of Ohio” and that has please the team’s owner.

However, the Browns are on the precipice of sweeping the Bengals for the first time since 2002 (pre-Lewis) and that can’t sit well with the front office—particularly with the swagger building in Cleveland like a boulder being pushed downhill.

“There was no other team he wanted to beat more in the NFL,” former Bengals great Isaac Curtis said of Paul Brown to Bengals.com, recently. “It always meant a lot to him. How we looked, how we prepared for every game. But you could see him take it to a different level when it was Cleveland Browns week. He didn’t talk about it all that much. But the intensity around Spinney Field snap, crackled and popped.”

While Paul’s son is a bit more camera-shy, the family still harbors a grudge against the Cleveland football franchise. Throw in the massive recent rivalry with the Steelers and just one win could be enough to sway important opinions as the new year approaches.

Regardless, the embedded excuses are already teed up for Brown. Injuries, an unexpectedly tough schedule and a potentially-strong finish would be just what he’d use to feed the masses with a 2019 Lewis return. There’s merit to some of these facets, but that doesn’t mean it will get butts in the Paul Brown Stadium seats next year.

*****

One of the callers on this week’s episode of OBI asked about Dwayne Haskins, who has been shooting up draft boards of late. It’s a natural question, given that so many Bengals fans are also Ohio State faithful.

For those who don’t know, Haskins was a Heisman Trophy finalist after having an outstanding year with the Buckeyes. In a pretty weak draft class for quarterbacks, Haskins has been a rising name as the draft continues to appear on the horizon.

He has the measurables at 6’3” and 220 pounds, to go along with some major career statistics in 2018. He had a whopping 47 passing touchdowns against just eight interceptions this year, making him one of the most effective passers in college football.

It’s said that there is a magic formula for college quarterbacks as it translates to professional success. A win/touchdown/completion percentage breakdown usually points to ceiling height, over that of actual height (and weight and 40-yard dash times).

In those respects as well, Haskins checks the boxes. He had a 70.2 completion percentage this year, while also leading Ohio State to a 12-1 record. His 9.23 yards-per-attempt average is also nothing to scoff at, given pro scouts a lot to digest in the coming months.

The problem? He’s only had one true year to showcase his talent. And, as it usually goes with the big-time programs, the question on if his success is predicated on coaching and/or surrounding talent lingers in the background.

And, fair or not, Haskins comes from both a coach and program that hasn’t spoon-fed the NFL a bunch of great NFL products at the position. Whether it was Tim Tebow at Florida, or J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones or Braxton Miller, Urban Meyer isn’t pumping out Peyton Manning's on the regular.

Even before Meyers’ tenure, Terrelle Pryor, Troy Smith, Craig Krenzel and a slew of other names with successful college careers never panned out in the pros. Is it nothing more than being “system guys”?

And, that’s where teams like the Bengals need to be wary. They may be keeping an eye on quarterbacks this year, but if they are picking in the top-15 and Marvin Lewis is back, they won’t spring for that position.

In fact, they’ll likely do what they have done in recent drafts with Lewis: let the best players fall their way, regardless of position. While it sounds good on paper, a team with three straight non-winning seasons needs immediate impact players at a lot of spots, so grabbing a non-need to develop from the bench could set them back further in 2019.

Then again, if Lewis is back next year, it could/should be his last hurrah. In the last year of his contract with a mindset of “going all in” for a championship, might he consider taking a quarterback early?

If so, Haskins will definitely pique his interest.

*****

Another question on the burning stove has to be in what the Bengals will do at the tight end position this spring. For the past couple of seasons, the team was blessed in having three quality players at the position in Tyler Eifert, Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah,

But, all three won’t be under contract next year and all three, while varyingly talented, have experienced injuries to keep them out of the lineup. So, do they continue to roll the dice on incredibly intriguing talent, or should they search elsewhere.

In the case of Eifert, the Bengals rightfully made a risky bet on him by signing him to a one-year “prove it deal” this offseason. Eifert got off to a nice start to the season, but in a sadly predictable manner, his season was once again cut short with injury.

The same can be said with Kroft, leaving Uzomah to pick up the slack with a depleted offense, including a backup quarterback. The team likes 2017 7th-round pick Mason Schreck, but he also keeps getting bitten by the injury bug.

In short, this provides a series of incredibly tough decisions.

For me, Uzomah is a guy I’d target to keep as the No. 2 tight end on the team. He has great size and athleticism, so he can help the offense with an increase of snaps.

Where it gets fuzzy is with Eifert and Kroft. The former is the quintessential tight end in today’s NFL, but how much do you pay a guy who only plays in 7.5 games per season?

On the other hand, Kroft showed some nice things in 2017, but really faded into the background with Eifert being back and Uzomah getting into the mix. While he has value, his skill set seems like one that is more easily findable than that of Eifert and/or Uzomah.

Ideally, I’d like to see all three back on team-friendly deals so that it isn’t a concern during March and April. But, if you’re twisting my arm and the Browns’ wallets, I’d say bring back Uzomah and grab Eifert for another rental deal while keeping the eyes open in the draft.

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