In part one of a three-part Bengals.com series, we take a look at the 2013 rookie class through the eyes of each of the coordinators. Today, we begin with the offense under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.
Jackson takes the reins of the offense from Jay Gruden, who guided the Bengals offense the previous three seasons before accepting the head coaching position with the Washington Redskins. This will be the fourth NFL team for which Jackson has served as an offensive coordinator: the Washington Redskins (2003), Atlanta Falcons (2007) and Oakland Raiders (2010).
This piece will examine the rookies on offense from last season, Jackson's thoughts on them from last season and what he expects from them in the future. Those players are tight end Tyler Eifert, running back Giovani Bernard, guard Tanner Hawkinson, running back Rex Burkhead, wide receiver Cobi Hamilton and center T.J. Johnson.
"I thought it was a very good, strong and talented draft for us," said Jackson. "Kudos to our scouting department, to Mike Brown and his staff and the people that helped put this thing together. With the group, now what we're looking for is the growth from year one to year two."
Two of the six rookies on offense last season saw significant time in Eifert and Bernard, the Bengals' first and second round picks, respectively. Hawkinson and Burkhead each appeared in one game, while Hamilton and Johnson each spent the entirety of the season on the Bengals practice squad.
"We had two guys come in and play a lot of football for us in Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard," said Jackson. "We need those guys to come back in their sophomore seasons and be even better, because they now know the environment and they now know the grind of a National Football League season. They know how to prepare their bodies as well as their minds to play."
"For the guys that didn't play as much, those very talented guys who maybe had more guys at their positions where they didn't get an opportunity, they need to fight to work into the mix as we continue to move forward. There's going to be some good fights because they're all very talented young players. You can't really put a ceiling on a particular player from year one to year two as long as they're willing to work. Our guys have worked extremely hard, and they will continue to work extremely hard, but again we have so much work to do between now and OTAs, between now and coaching sessions and between now and training camp. I'm really looking forward to seeing these guys come back."
Eifert, the 21st overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft, started 15 games for the Bengals as a second tight end along side fellow TE Jermaine Gresham. He had 39 catches for 445 yards and two TDs on the season, although his rookie season may not have finished exactly how Eifert planned--he suffered a stinger in Game 15 and was inactive in the regular season finale--he returned for the Wild Card playoff game but only played a few snaps. Jackson knows Eifert will be looking to be more of a playmaker as he enters his second season.
"Tyler Eifert got his feet wet last year and knowing him, he was probably a little disappointed because he wanted more and expected more from himself," said Jackson. "We'll give him a chance to do more. We have two of the better tight ends in the league, along with Jermaine Gresham, and we want them to play like that."
The first running back selected in the 2013 NFL Draft (37th overall), Giovani Bernard put together one of the finest seasons ever for a Bengals rookie. He rushed for 695 yards on 170 carries (4.1 yards per carry) with five TDs, but also boasted impressive receiving numbers with 56 catches for 514 yards with three TDs. Bernard's 56 receptions ranked as the franchise's most by any running back, and his 514 receiving yards were third-most for any RB. Jackson sees great things on the horizon for Bernard.
"Gio had a sensational rookie season, but boy I think there's so much more to get," said Jackson. "I'm looking forward to working with him, and coaching with him, and watching him grow but the sky is the limit for him."
Bernard's 1209 yards from scrimmage ranked second on the team last season only behind A.J. Green's 1426, and his total was second-most in Bengals history by a rookie, trailing only RB Corey Dillon's total of 1388 in 1997. Bernard was under the tutelage of Jackson last season when Jackson served as running backs coach. This season, Jackson will have more of a direct impact on Bernard as he will be the one calling the plays. While Bernard had a tremendous rookie season, there's still plenty of work to do to get to where he needs to be.
"I don't think that there's anything Gio would say that he's perfect at," said Jackson. "It's too soon for that. Gio is going to have to grind to get himself in the best shape of his life, to understand this offense inside and out, and to perform like the big time players perform because I think it's in there. He knows it's in there and it's my job to create an environment for it to come out. All he has to do is come to work like he does everyday with the right mindset and the right attitude and let everything else take care of itself."
The Bengals drafted a pair of offensive linemen last year with the plan of having them develop and learn the system. That's exactly what Tanner Hawkinson (fifth round) and T.J. Johnson (seventh round) were able to do as rookies. Johnson spent the entire season on the practice squad, and although Hawkinson was on the 53-man roster all season, he was active for only five games while appearing in one.
As far as their respective readiness for the NFL, both Hawkinson and Johnson had aspects to improve. Hawkinson, projected as a guard, has great quickness, balance and versatility as he played primarily tackle at the University of Kansas, but looked to add more strength as he transition into the NFL. Johnson, a center who started a University of South Carolina record of 53 consecutive games, juxtaposes Hawkinson in that regard. Johnson came to the Bengals with the strength of an NFL linemen, but needed to work on his quickness and technique. Jackson very much liked what he saw in each of the linemen last season and has high hopes for the future of both.
"Hawkinson is a guy we feel strongly about," said Jackson. "He suited up a couple of times so he got to see what the stars and the lights look like. I'm sure he wants to suit up all the time right now but it's just how much desire does he have in there to come out and be in the group. Not just to be part of the group but to be in the group, the group of guys that we count on, week in and week out, that are playing for us."
"TJ Johnson is a young guy who worked hard and I'm sure he's chomping at the bit to get back here. He demonstrated a lot of ability in practice. He's a tough, throwback guy who I'm looking forward to watching him compete in the offseason and to prepare himself to have a chance to compete with some of our starting guys."
With the offseason departures of starting C Kyle Cook and end of season starting OT Anthony Collins, Hawkinson and Johnson could see their roles increase in 2014 and beyond.
RB Rex Burkhead and WR Cobi Hamilton are a pair of 2013 sixth round picks looking to make more of an impact in 2014. Burkhead, featured on Bengals.com yesterday, spent his entire rookie season on the roster, but was only active and played in one game, albeit on special teams. Burkhead did not get to play offense last season but is hoping to be worked into the running back rotation in 2014.
"Rex is excited and he's hungry," said Jackson. "I think he sees opportunity. If I know Rex Burkhead, he's going to come back here on a mission. I think he believes he doesn't take a back seat to anybody. That's the type of attitude you want in a young player. I'm looking forward to watching him come back here and compete because I think he's a talented player."
Hamilton spent all of 2013 on the practice squad but impressed the coaching staff with some of the plays he made in practice. He re-wrote much of the University of Arkansas receiving record book, leaving Arkansas as tops in career catches (175) and third in receiving yards (2835). As a senior, he set single-season school records in receptions (90) and receiving yards (1335). He also set the Southeastern Conference record in 2012 for receiving yards in a game with 303. Clearly, he has the ability, but he was unable to break through a very crowded receiving room last season.
"Cobi Hamilton made spectacular plays in practice and I watched him improve every week," said Jackson. "We have a very talented wide receiver group but I don't think you can ever have too much talent. It's going to be fun to see where he fits with the A.J. Green's, and the Marvin Jones's, and the Mo Sanu's and the rest of the group that we have there, because he's a big physical player."
Jackson inherits an offense that ranked 10th in net offense and tied for sixth in scoring a year ago. He is going into his third consecutive season with the Bengals, in this his second stint with the franchise. Given his track record as an offensive coordinator, his knowledge and familiarity of the personnel, and the myriad of young talent discussed here, this could be another big year for the Bengals offense.