A look at the tight ends

As the offseason activity dies down and we roll towards the promise of football again under the summer sun, let us look to the future! Bengals Gab will be looking at each of the individual position groups on the team over the next several days, providing readers with a grade on each and a primer as mini-camps, training camp, and the preseason approaches.

Next up, the tight ends.

Perhaps no roster group needed more immediate help as 2009 concluded than the tight ends.

For years the team had survived without a legitimate receiving threat at the position, relying instead upon a deep receiving corps and an emphasis on the no huddle offense to hide the deficiencies. Head coach Marvin Lewis had led an effort to find a complete tight end—one that would be able to provide both adequate blocking and receiving for years, with little results. Starter Reggie Kelly and primary back-up Ben Utecht were both lost in training camp. 2009 3rd rounder Chase Coffman fought through injuries and difficulties in picking up the blocking side of the game, eventually ending up on injured reserve. Project Dan Coats and waiver-wire refugee J.P. Foschi were pieced together to make it through game days, but neither showed the blocking or pass catching prowess necessary to improve the position.

The results, then, were wholly expected. With a much-depleted receiving corps minus T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry, the weakness at tight end became more glaring. Carson Palmer was found the tight ends to be of questionable reliability as receivers. Their blocking was suspect, and both players showed an inability to secure the ball. With Chad Ochocinco double-, and sometimes triple-covered, the lack of a legitimate tight end hurt the offense considerably.

The team was proactive in addressing the concern by applying their first round draft pick to the position. Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham was the team’s first pick, despite missing 2009 with injury. Gresham was the consensus best tight end in the draft, with the size, strength and speed to become an elite player at the position.

Early returns have been positive. Said QB Carson Palmer recently, “I don’t know if I’ve seen a weakness yet. Not that he has everything down. I don’t know if there’s anything that any tight end does in this league that he can’t potentially do. If he had to play in Pittsburgh’s offense and block a guy every single time and run that little quick seam routes and out routes he could do that. If he played in Denver’s offense and run a lot of routes he could do that.”

Team brass also brought back Kelly in the spring after confirming his Achille’s tendon injury had healed. Kelly brings veteran presence, locker room leadership, and is still considered one of the best blocking tight ends in the league. Coffman returns fully recovered from his injuries and with a year under his belt learning blocking schemes. Practice squad stand-out Darius Hill will also fight for a roster spot. Coats will be back, but Foschi will not.

Overall Position Group Grade: C

Until otherwise proven on the field, this position is the weakest on the offense. While there are high hopes for Gresham and Coffman, it’s all unproven potential. Kelly is an excellent blocker who should provide immediate help and enhance the already-formidable running game, but the real need here is reliable pass catchers to work the middle of the field. Both Gresham and Coffman should provide more of a receiving threat this year, with Gresham’s athletic ability and Coffman’s reliable hands being major upgrades over Coats and Foschi.

As Gresham and Coffman develop, Kelly should begin to take a back seat and move to the role of mentor. Look for Gresham to start with Kelly and Coffman serving as reserves on the final roster (barring injuries). Hill might end up spending 2010 on the taxi squad again. Coats should be bagging groceries.

Tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes is a solid position coach, and as evidenced by Hard Knocks, is a hoot to listen to. Finally with some bona fide talent to work with, it should be interesting to see how much he gets out of them. It has been my strong suspicion that the team will move back to a more wide-open, no-huddle attack in 2010, but will use less 3 receiver sets and use more 2-tight end sets. I see Gresham and Coffman providing some additional dimensions to the offense in the 2-tight end sets assuming they can provide the blocking necessary to ensure runningback Cedric Benson remains the mainstay of the offense.

Stay tuned to Bengals Gab for more positional analysis and opinions, and as always, feel free to leave us a comment!


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