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Bratkowski already tinkering

Jermaine Gresham

If Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski hadn't heard it, we all had.

"Why draft a tight end in the first round when Bratkowski doesn't know how to use one?"

Indeed, the most catches by a Bengals tight end as Bratkowski heads into his 10th season is Reggie Kelly's 31 in 2008.

Bratkowski laughed Thursday night with Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham safely in the fold with the 21st pick. A Jermaine Gresham who is the most well-rounded tight end on this draft board when it comes to catching and blocking. 

"There hasn't been very many of them to come out over the past few years that you think are going to be really efficient in both areas," Bratkowski said.

A Jermaine Gresham who projects to be Cincinnati's biggest receiving threat at the position since the heyday of Rodney Holman.

"If you remember, up until a certain point last season we had some pretty good wide receivers; in fact, very good ones," Bratkowski said of his three-receiver sets bristling with talent at one time or another like Chad Ochocinco, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chris Henry, Kelley Washington, Kevin Walter, Andre Caldwell and, albeit, a past-his-prime Laveranues Coles.

"Now we're different," he said. "We don't have all those guys. You should see some of the stuff I've put in for the rookie minicamp. Our plan had been to get a tight end at some point in the draft, so I wanted to make sure that he got a lot of stuff next weekend. It's not new stuff. But you haven't seen it in awhile because we had so many good wide receivers."

Truth be told it was Bratkowski that got the tight end mess straightened out in the wake of Tony McGee's season-ending injury and Marco Battaglia's appendectomy in 2001. With the cupboard bare, his lobbying produced Matt Schobel in the third round in 2002 and the free agent signing of Kelly in 2003. They weren't Todd Heap or Heath Miller, but they didn't have to be with the wide receivers the Bengals had.

When he wanted to diversify things in 2008 with more double tight-end sets, the Bengals made Ben Utecht the richest tight end in team history ($3 million per year) in a free-agent move that backfired in just 10 games because of his injuries. The club hopes the injuries to last year's third rounder Chase Coffman, the most prolific pass-catching tight end in NCAA history, have cleared up to give it the younger version of Kelly and Utecht.

With the idea being that Gresham is Kelly, the guy that can catch and block, and Coffman is the Utecht, the receiver. What separates Gresham from Coffman is that he played in a pro style offense at Oklahoma and has done a lot of the in-line blocking that Coffman never did until he arrived here. Both Gresham and Coffman are coming off seasons they didn't play in any games. Coffman because of a broken foot and the transition and Gresham because of a torn knee cartilage.

"The good thing about Jermaine is that he has played a lot on the line," Hayes said. "Let's face it — he missed a year. So, by the time we get him in here, it's going to be about a year and a half since he's played football in a group setting. We know that. Like Brat said, we're going to get his feet wet.

"We're going to get him going. The transition for him is getting down in a three-point stance and going through all those fundamental things. I had to revisit with Chase because he'd never done it, where this kid has done it—and he's done a lot of it—so it's not something new to him where all of a sudden he's thinking about it constantly. He can put his hand on the ground and just go play. He's done it, and that's going to give him an advantage when he gets here."

Gresham admits he needs to work on his blocking, but he's one of these athletes that Lewis loves because he's "a knee-bender," and this is where his gym-rat work ethic comes in.

"This guy doesn't have a time clock where he says, 'OK, I'm going to block my guy for two seconds and then kind of see what's going on,' " Bratkowski said. "This guy is pushing his guy downfield until he hears the whistle. Those things tipped the balance in his favor. The quality of kid he is, the work habits he brings, the love for the game—those were positives in his favor, along with his ability."

Gresham certainly sounds like a guy that wants to block as he talks about the AFC North.

"They play in a tough division, a smashmouth division," he said. "They like to run the ball, and they need to run the ball. So I know that much about it."

But Bratkowski and quarterback Carson Palmer have never had a tight end like Gresham. An explosive downfield receiver who had 14 touchdown catches in 2008 and earned a reputation for playing big in big games when he scored the Sooners' two touchdowns in Florida's 24-14 win in a national title game.

And his 66 catches for 950 yards in '08 compute to 14.4 yards per catch. The Bengals haven't had that from a tight end since McGee's 16.5 in 1998. But McGee didn't have a quarterback and Palmer hasn't had a Gresham. Neither has six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, who tweeted minutes after the selection, "I'm stoked."

Palmer added a text, "I'm excited to see him." The Bengals have now invested $7 million per year in a free-agent wide receiver (Antonio Bryant) and a first-round draft pick (Gresham) to stretch the field to rid The Ocho of the constant double teams. In the end, that's how much Henry and T.J. Houshmandzadeh were worth.

"Just his selection has added something to us," Bratkowski said. "It has given us flexibility and some help in the red zone potentially with the tight end. He can stretch and get down the field. When the outside guys are getting coverage and getting doubled over, he can get down the middle of the field, as well as body up and move to the inside in the shorter ranges, and rebound-position some of those guys and get the ball."

Bratkowski doesn't want to put the guy in Canton just yet, although the Hall of Fame Game will be Gresham's first NFL game. And he certainly doesn't want to make any Antonio Gates comparisons just yet even though he talked to the Oklahoma people about playing basketball at one point.

"He's going to be behind because he missed a whole season and he has to really catch up on the blocking," Bratkowski said. "But he's got the willingness to do it."

So does Bratkowski with his rookie camp experiments.

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