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Fullbacks & Tight Ends

What’s there not to like about these grunts? Both are positions that ultimately require more physical brute than gifted skill, and, as the Bengals have demonstrated in the past decade or so, it isn’t necessary for them to touch the ball all that often. They’re typically guys the size of punching bags there to act as a barrier between defender and ball-carrier and nothing else.

Sure it’s nice to have an agile few in the bunch; guys who can distract the defense into thinking they might actually catch a pass or two, but when it comes down to it, they are there to block.

Which brings me to several points.

First is the value of Reggie Kelly. Yes, he’s getting old for NFL standards. I know that he doesn’t have much play-making ability, and it’s true his replacement was probably drafted in Chase Coffman, but if nothing else, the man can block very well. I remember Brian Billick once referring to Kelly as a third tackle after a game.

Also, Carson loves the guy; even publicly pressuring management to resign him in the press conference after the last game in 2006. And best yet, he’s often been graced with the increasingly-valuable title of a “good locker-room guy”; the kind of label the Bengals sorely need to help balance out the negative perception that the team seems mired in nationally.

Kelly has never been a dazzling receiver; he’s the king of the pitty-patter footwork after he catches it, usually good for three or four yards a pop. He actually tied his career high with 31 catches last year, but the majority of those came on panic throws Fitzgerald squeezed out as he ran around for his life all season. Kelly isn’t stretching any defenses anytime soon, but his blocking ability and reputable work ethic make Reggie a keeper.

Then there’s Ben Utecht. Ben has a lot to prove this season after battling injuries and dropped passes in his 2008 campaign. There was some noticeable optimism centered around Utecht after the Bengals signed him as a free-agent from Indy last off-season, but in Week 2, Titans’ linebacker David Thornton, exploded into Utecht’s chest and forced him to be removed on a stretcher. He was never able to showcase himself much after that, racking up just 10 catches on the season. If Coffman shows himself as the exciting, pass-catching tight end the Bengals are counting on him to be, then Utecht could find himself looking for a new team next year.

Yes, the pass-catching tight end seems to have become more vital for teams than it once was. Of course there have always been greats at the position, but these days, it seems every team is terribly excited to get their hands one of those precious, mismatch tight ends that are driving defensive coordinators just bonkers.

You know the types, too fast for linebackers and too big for corners & safeties. They’re actually breeding a new type of defensive back in order to stop this very thing; there’s a safety for USC named Taylor Mays who should arrive on the scene soon to help the situation. So, if the tight end has proven to be such a proven offensive weapon, then why can’t the fullback perform a similar, if not exact same function?

This idea is nothing new; Keith Byars was a great receiving fullback, Tony Richardson another. Fullbacks have played important roles in the passing game before, but that certainly has not happened with the Bengals under Marvin Lewis. It’s been mentioned how the passing game didn’t need help from tight-ends or fullbacks in its prime, but that is the former offense that has presumably been dragged off into the woods and put to sleep.

Luckily for Mr. Lewis, a perfect candidate for the pass-catching fullback persona is within arms reach. Brian Leonard, the proverbial gritty guy inexplicably traded from the Rams to the Bengals, is comfortable with either smashing into defenders on run blocks, catching dump-off passes underneath or taking hand offs. Whatever the weather.

Leonard caught over 200 passes in college and managed another 30 during his rookie season in St. Louis. He also racked up 32 rushing touchdowns and nearly 3000 yards on the ground at Rutgers. While not particularly big and fast like many of the high-profile tight ends in the league, Leonard has a chance to play a role in the Bengals offense that they haven’t enjoyed since Derrick Fenner in the mid-90’s.

For those who insist on the more traditional, buffalo-type fullbacks that charge into anything and everything headfirst, fortunately for you, Fui Vakapuna was recently signed to his rookie contract. Fui Man Chui (it’s a working nickname that can change on a whim. Just go with it for now), is a squat & rugged garbage can of a man, who is 260 lbs. and appears to live without a neck. He’ll do just fine as a buffalo.

As for Jeremi Johnson, like Pizza the Hut from Spaceballs, his issues controlling his weight seem to have made his chances for future success on the team, bleak.

Perhaps this is the season when we see featured grunt players within the Bengals passing attack. It’s a new year and a new offense. Brat, Marvin and Carson have all talked about how this version will be different than the one we all watched plummet back to Earth. It might be smart to insulate this next attempt with fullbacks and tight ends to cushion the impact

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