Bengals mull their richest TE group


Jermaine Gresham

With apologies to John F. Kennedy and his line about Thomas Jefferson, this is the greatest collection of tight ends in Bengals history. With the possible exception of when Dave Lapham introduced Rodney Holman to Dan Ross and Bob Trumpy.

Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden isn't ready to bronze any of the five, but there is a real chance that four of them may make the 53-man roster. And for a guy that had only two tight ends for virtually all of last season, that's a bonanza.

"We just went from 150 to 200 plays. A three tight-end grouping gives you a whole new set of plays," Gruden says with a smile. "It may not be that many plays, but it at least gives you another package. As long as they can block effectively, and so far they've shown that they can, they just have to get better at it. It all starts in the running game. That's what is going to give us our options in dropback passing and play-action."

Lapham, a former offensive lineman and the long-time Bengals radio analyst, played with the Pro Bowl trio of Holman, Ross and Trumpy during the '70s and early '80s. While he says the 1981 AFC championship tandem of Ross and M.L. Harris was formidable, it doesn't match the potential firepower of two first-rounders in Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, or the depth offered by nine-year veteran Alex Smith and sophomore Orson Charles.

The Bengals are so deep there that Charles is being used extensively as a fullback in the spring workouts as they mull going with four running backs and four tight ends if Charles can also handle fullback.  

"Not only is it the best group of tight ends the Bengals have ever had, but I think it's potentially one of the best groups in the league," Lapham says. "Danny and Rodney overlapped only briefly (two-and-a-half seasons), but Danny was at the end of the line. In Gresham and Eifert you've got two top tight ends that could conceivably be playing together in their primes for something like seven years with the caveat being if the NFL keeps the two tight-end trend going."

Gruden knows there is a long way between now and the Sept. 8 opener in Chicago and he says the Bengals must "find our way" in putting together the pieces.  

He can start with these tight ends' versatility.

In Gresham and Eifert with Charles adding fullback to his résumé, the Bengals have three guys that can virtually line up anywhere. And Smith, acquired in free agency, may be the most well-rounded of the group when it comes to catching and blocking.

Richard Quinn, a second-round selection by Denver in 2009, joined the club the week of last season's opener and has yet to be active for a game.

Gresham, like Eifert the 21st pick in his draft, has not only been a solid in-line blocker during his three seasons, but he's lined up in the slot as well as being a detached wide receiver. Eifert also lined up in the slot and at wide receiver at Notre Dame and also has the ability to be a back-side or "move" tight end that can go in motion or anywhere else not on the line, which is commonly known as an H-back. Last year as a rookie, Charles, a fourth-rounder from Georgia, played the H-back and also lined up in the slot. Now he's getting a ton of snaps at fullback, but he is also getting some work at tight end and H-back.

The 6-3, 250-pound Charles is having a good spring. He impressed the coaches last year with his athleticism and hands (eight catches for 101 yards) and they think he can help in a number of different ways.

"He's doing well; he's fighting through some things mentally," Gruden says. "Once he learns the basics of fullback, then maybe we can do some more with him outside also. He's playing a little bit of everything right now.

"He's a great athlete. He just has to find a home. With the addition of Tyler and Alex and with Jermaine already here, we think he's strong enough and quick enough in space where he can do some things in the backfield and also be a tight end."

The man charged with turning Charles into a fullback, running backs coach Hue Jackson, always starts with speed. And Charles has it.

"He's a back. We know he can play tight end," Jackson says of Charles's spring regimen. "He's got some work to do and he knows that. He's eager. But we've got a lot of time left. He's a big, physical guy. He's a big man, he's got strong hands and he can run fast. He runs 4.6.

"He has to learn all the nuances of the position. He doesn't have the background, but I think he has the skill set that if he keeps working at it he'll have a chance to compete."

Besides the versatility, there is the production and experience. Gresham is the club's first Pro Bowl tight end since the great Holman 20 years before him and Smith has played in 102 NFL games during eight seasons while earning a sterling reputation for Reggie Kelly-like reliability. Eifert won every major tight end award in the nation while racking up 140 catches in 34 starts.

The Kelly-Matt Schobel-Tony Stewart axis was a major factor in the Bengals winning the 2005 AFC North from a blocking standpoint, but they caught a total of only 37 balls.

When the Bengals won the division in '09 with the help of J.P. Foschi's 27 catches, the tight end wasn't emphasized, and when Kelly retired after helping break in Gresham his rookie year of 2010, he ended up with just 125 catches and three TDs in eight Bengals seasons and 106 games. In his eight NFL seasons with three teams, Smith has 160 catches for 12 TDs, so it is a different look.  

Gruden, an offensive assistant on the Tampa Bay team that drafted Smith in the third round in 2005 out of Stanford, sees him as a glue guy.

"He'll do exactly what he's told. He'll do the right thing. Plays smart. Runs good routes, he can block in-line. He's a solid all-around tight end," Gruden says. "There's really not a weakness that he has. He's not a great blocker or a great receiver, but he's very good at everything he does. To have a guy do both is equally important, and to have a security blanket like that for three tight ends (alignments) or if someone gets dinged, that's important."

But Gruden says that while three tight ends is an effective if not frequent package, there are some basic principles the Bengals have to be able to execute in order to use any of these diverse looks.

For instance, Gruden could deploy Gresham and Eifert, along with Charles and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the backfield and have three tight ends that way, among a slew of others.

"There are a lot of different options. We just have to find our way," Gruden says. "We have to introduce basic run concepts and pass concepts and branch off formational and personnel groupings and go from there. The key is running the ball out of it and that opens up your options. They can still play zone on you if you can't run the ball no matter how many tight ends are out there."

On paper, Lapham likes how this generation of tight ends line up.

"You've got about everything you need," Lapham says. "Two big-time playmakers if Jermaine can get more consistent and Eifert does what people think he can do. The veteran guy in Smith that used to be the prototypical NFL tight end that can catch and block. And with Charles you've got a guy that may be able to play all over. Potentially, it makes them about as deep as anybody there."

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