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Bengals tight ends have much to prove

Cincinnati experienced a scare when Tyler Eifert laid on the turf for several minutes on Thursday. Along with questioning his durability, the Bengals tight end position has much to prove.

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Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

When Tyler Eifert extended himself over rookie Eric Dargan, the third-year tight end landed hard on his back during practice on Thursday. For a few moments, Cincinnati held their collective breath as Eifert remained on the turf, turning to his side in obvious discomfort.

Are you worried because he's hurt? Naturally. Are you worried that he might not get up, reflecting an already established paranoia reflecting his history of injury? Absolutely.

But, he did get up, and even continued practicing. To reassure you, he practiced the next day, too. Still, durability questions will hover over Eifert, similar to the shadow encapsulating Marvin Jones' career. Both are exceptional talents, who have missed significant time during their young NFL careers. Yet, their respective injuries could be viewed as unfortunate results of freak plays, where a joint bends in the opposite direction than nature intended, or an opposing player lands/steps on someone. Despite all of that, Eifert and Jones have played a combined 43 out of a possible 80 games (53.8 percent).

Head coach Marvin Lewis immediately diagnosed Eifert's discomfort on Thursday, expertly concluding that "I just figured he had the wind knocked out of him," right after he landed. Once trainers looked over Eifert, and once the team's most experienced tight end regained his breath, he was helped to his feet and slowly walked to the side where, with his pads still firmly secured, he remained for most of Thursday's session.

"He'll be fine, he'll be fine," Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said via the Cincinnati Enquirer. "Anytime a guy goes down real quickly like that you're going to make sure he's going to be OK. So I walked over there and I looked at him in the eye and he's fine. He just jumped up too high. They say the man can't jump but he can. He can jump. The boy got up. He got some air space there. It happens sometimes."

The coaching staff is leaning heavily on Eifert this season, who became the most experienced tight end after Cincinnati decided not to renew Jermaine Gresham's contract; despite a feeling-out process in Oakland, Gresham eventually rejoined Carson Palmer in Arizona last month.

In an effort to provide depth at the tight end position, Cincinnati drafted Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah and signed Matt Lengel and John Peters as undrafted free agents. They released Jake Murphy on Wednesday to make room for rookie Michael Bennett, who signed as a wide receiver but is currently listed as tight end on the team's roster, following a workout on Tuesday. Bennett posted 134 receptions for 1,607 yards receiving and 17 touchdowns during his four-year career in Georgia. Due to a collection of injuries, including two torn ACLs (one on each leg), with the most recent occurring during practice heading into the Belk Bowl (played on Dec. 30, 2014), Bennett went undrafted as he continued rehabilitation efforts this summer.

Eifert, arguably one of the top offensive performers during training camp this year, caught two passes for 30 yards receiving during Cincinnati's preseason opener. Uzomah, two receptions for 13 yards receiving, was the only other tight end that recorded any statistics against the Giants last Friday. Kroft was targeted once. Everyone is heading into Monday Night's game against Tampa Bay with a desire, if not a need, to improve.

"Obviously I want to make a lot of plays if I can, but I want coaches to see I am a reliable player and know what I'm doing so they can put me in more situations," Kroft said via the Cincinnati Enquirer. "But obviously, everyone wants the stats and everyone wants the plays, so I wouldn't mind making some plays, but I'm just going to keep doing my job and that will come."

Kroft played 27 snaps on Friday, securing a positive Pro Football Focus grade (+0.3) as a run blocker. Uzomah scored the second-worst overall grade with a troubling -3.0 score as a run blocker -- second-worse to offensive guard Tanner Hawkinson.

Eifert played 15 regular games during his rookie season, posting 39 receptions for 445 yards receiving and two touchdowns. During his third reception against Baltimore during the team's regular season opener last year, Eifert suffered a season-ending dislocated elbow and eventually underwent procedures to correct damage in his shoulder and elbow. As a result, he lost more than 10 pounds of muscle, which he regained before voluntary practices earlier this spring.