James Casey, the Bengals tight ends coach who lived it as one of the NFL's great grinders of the previous decade playing in more games (95) than he had catches (72) as a selfless fullback/tight end, can tell you exactly why a rookie's biggest challenge in the league is learning his position.
"In general it's hard for any rookie to come in, but specifically to come in as a tight end to learn the offense and learn the NFL game," Casey said during a break in his group's break-through training camp.
"You're matched up against a big defensive end trying to learn technique in pass protection. You're trying to run routes against talented safeties."
"People watch the NFL and they see tight ends like Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz. They see a bunch of opportunities in a game, a bunch of targets," Casey said of the league's catch-only monsters. "That's what the fans see, but you don't see the day in and day out and the work in the run game and pass protections. Those routes against strong safeties and linebackers. It's difficult. The tight ends I've got, they take a lot of pride on being a complete tight end. Being able to go do their job in the run game even though they know there is not going to be much appreciation. Do their job in the run game, do their job in pass protection.
"It's a little easier to come into the league strictly as a pass-catching tight end because you're just running routes against safeties. You're not asked to block as much as our guys. They've got a lot asked of them, but they're doing a great job so far."
It's fitting that the leader of the club's most understated group may have offered the understatement of camp. The tight ends have been eye catching. So much so that Zac Taylor, the Bengals head coach, play-caller and camp director supreme in this most unique of camps, has a compelling issue facing his playbook.
According to the numbers, no NFL team played with fewer tight ends for most of last season than the Bengals. But he'll be the first to tell you that the tight ends have taken this camp by storm in an assault led by the six-year veteran C.J. Uzomah and rising sophomore Drew Sample.
"If you're going to pin down a unit that's had a real strong training camp, the tight ends would be that group," Taylor said this week. "James has done an outstanding job with the mentality that those guys show up with every single day at practice. They want to be perfect, they bring energy in practice, those guys are healthy and playing full speed in all three phases. That's been an exciting group to watch.
"They've driven the energy bus, so to speak, on this offense right now. They bring it every period, they are dialed in. They are the best walk-through players that we got on the team, which is important because we get good work in there. You can point to them as examples of doing things the right way."
Now Taylor has to figure out how to use them on a roster teeming with excellent wide receivers for a coaching staff that has in its DNA the 11 personnel group featuring three wide receivers and one tight end. He has to fit that into the needs of a rookie quarterback that is going to need a potent running game fueled by two tight end sets.
Of course, the tight ends want to get on the field more and the way Uzomah and Sample are practicing in both phases it's going to be hard to keep them off. But like Casey says, that's why we're here this month and why Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan are dissecting every snap.
"It's all about matchups," Casey says. "That's what training camp is for. To prove themselves. To show Zac and Brain they can be trusted and can create matchup problems and help us in the run game and run their routes. That's their job right now. Prove they can make plays and get on the field as much as possible."
Boy, are they doing that. Uzomah has been his typically solid, selfless self. Sample, after missing the last seven games of his rookie year and playing in just one game for at least 30 percent of the snaps, has blown it up. Working with Joe Burrow, that rookie quarterback, he has shown nice yards after catch ability and he's going after linebackers in the run game.
Sample, the second-round pick in Taylor's first draft, had been heralded as the nation's best blocking tight end at Washington and that's why they took him. Now, everyone knows about his work ethic after he famously turned his Cincinnati garage into a gym this spring with workout partner and camp foe Sam Hubbard, the Bengals right end. Burrow, Hubbard's good college friend, later joined the fray in the summer.
"From year one to year two, there's typically a pretty big transition," says Casey, who went from solely a special teams player to an offensive regular for those run-crazed Texans teams that ended up denting the Bengals' top ten defense in two straight Wild Card Games.
Casey remembers Sample's first month. His first NFL snap in the din of Seattle came against an overall No. 1 pick in Jadeveon Clowney. In the game after that was the dangerous 49ers front. A few weeks later it was Calais Campbell, one of the sack kings.
But Casey believes Sample is "an upper echelon blocker," and those are winnable matchups. The first two weeks of camp have been more than encouraging.
"So far he's more explosive. He's more confident. He's more aggressive," Casey said. "That's what we saw when he drafted him."
Casey says the standard in his room is higher than last year, given that Taylor's system has been snuggled in place for a year. That has meant much to Sample, still 258 pounds but this year a sleeker and smarter 258.
"I feel more comfortable in the offense and so the goal is always to push the standard. I have a really high standard for myself," Sample said. "We have a really high standard for out room. We want to be the best and be the best in the run game and the pass game. Our room and Coach Casey, he's pushing us every day to really push ourselves in that aspect of the game."
He made a nice play the other day in 11-on-11. He beat a backer, made a seamless catch over the middle and burst for double-digit yards. He thinks he could have made that play last year if he got the ball.
"Just more opportunities this year," Sample said. "Maybe I wouldn't have read the defense the same way as I did last year because I just have that better feel for the offense. It's hard to say, but I think I can. I think I can make plays in the pass game. This year it's about doing it. That was just one example where I just did my job and he found me and we were able to make a big play out of it."
Uzomah has been a settling influence and is a key guy here. Like Casey, a marvelous multi-sport athlete who dedicated skills to learning the tight end grind, he has come up through the ranks and sees a chance for his unit to set a tone for an offense that needs them.
He buys into the theory that a reason the tight ends weren't used that often last season is because they had to throw to get back into a lot of games. He's obviously looking for more snaps for his guys.
"That's always the hope, even in the running game," Uzomah said. "I want us to be stressed. I want to be stressed. I want the responsibility and the onus to be on us, on our shoulders, so you'll have to see."