Orson Charles, the Bengals fourth-round pick from Georgia, is the latest chip collected by offensive coordinator Jay Gruden in what has become the NFL's high-stakes passing game of 5,000-yard passing seasons, 4,000-yard rookie passers, playoff rookie quarterbacks, and suspensions for heady defensive play.
With the Super Bowl-champion Giants currently having nearly 10 tight ends on their roster and the team they just beat in the big game, Bill Belichick's Patriots boasting the universe's best tight-end tandem, one of the latest elements of spreading out defenses is in full trend: Two tight ends that can be moved around like wide receivers and here comes Charles, a former high school wide receiver in Tampa, Fla., that can get down the field.
In Cincinnati the Bengals welcome back Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham, and he let Charles know what's on the table when he tweeted him a welcome after last month's selection.
"He just said he can't wait. And he thinks we'll be the best duo (of) tight ends in the league," Charles reported after one of the five practices of rookie minicamp this past weekend at Paul Brown Stadium.
Charles literally closed up camp Sunday at noon when tight ends coach Jon Hayes and rookie free agent Bryce Davis joined him as the last guys walking out of the rain into the locker room. He's the guy who had his bags packed when he was called on Draft Day, ready to work with Hayes, Gresham and quarterback Andy Dalton; disappointed he'd have to wait two weeks.
"You know I like to raise horses," said Hayes, who played his college ball at Iowa and nine of his 12 NFL seasons in Kansas City. "I'd rather have to pull back on one than try to make him go."
The Bengals know Charles has the get-up-and-go, and they know at 6-3, 255 pounds he's not the prototypical blueprint of the gamebreaking tight end, such as the 6-5, 260-pound Gresham and the 6-6, 265-pound Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots, the current rage with his 17 touchdown catches.
And Charles may not have the speed of Gronkowski's tag-team partner, Aaron Hernandez. But there are similarities. Charles is pretty fast himself with excellent hands who can move well in space while getting yards after catch, and he's viewed as a more well-rounded tight end than Hernandez when it comes to the other aspects of the game. Here's a guy that broke the NFL scouting combine bench press record for tight ends once held by his mentor, Ben Watson, a 2004 first-rounder from Georgia.
"We're not going to be like that because I'm different than Hernandez and (Gresham) is different than Gronkowski," Charles said. "We're going to set something new."
Charles should know. On Sundays while at Georgia he watched game films of NFL tight ends after he was done watching himself. Jimmy Graham of New Orleans, because of his 99 catches, and Jason Witten of the Cowboys, because a Georgia coach once coached in Dallas, were two frequent shows Charles watched. But he also watched old standbys, Antonio Gates and Vernon Davis. And, yes, Gresham.
"Very athletic; he's a freak," Charles said of Gresham. "I don't think you see anybody that's 6-6, 260 that can run as smooth and as fast as him and can stay on the line and block, so I'm definitely excited for him to come in and show me."
Gruden isn't quite sure what he has. "I've only seen (Charles) for three days and we're going to have to wait until training camp." But he does know that at just 21 years and four months, Charles has plenty to learn.
"He's like a lot of young tight ends," Gruden said. "He's got to get a feel for the concepts on the pass routes, what to do against certain looks, when to be patient. I'm not going to jump the gun and say we have the best tight end duo in America."
Gruden is also sorting through other options. Led by wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, a third-rounder that head coach Marvin Lewis believes is going to play right away, the Bengals have a corps of young receivers that looks like is going to make an early impact. Plus, Gruden is looking at a running back by committee.
"Maybe, maybe not. We'll have to see in training camp," Gruden said when asked if Charles is going to contribute right away in the passing game.
But Gruden does like what Charles can do detached from the line of scrimmage and how he can go get the ball and make people miss after the catch. And he's looking to get more from Gresham with a second year in the offense bolstered by OTAs.
This is what the Bengals think Charles can do:
When Hue Jackson was the Bengals wide receivers coach a few years back, he had a running competition with Hayes during practice. With Jackson now coaching defensive backs, it is amped up a bit. On Saturday, when Charles pulled off one of his smooth releases and easily got behind a safety in a seven-on-seven drill, Hayes exulted in Jackson's direction with a fist pump.
"He's going to be a very capable receiver," Lewis said of Charles. "You're not physically blocking people at this point, but with the strength he has in the lower body, core strength and upper body, he's going to keep getting better. He's kind of a puppy, but with great abilities already that he will keep getting better with."
On paper Charles gives the Bengals the dimension that has already crept into the AFC North arms race. Donald Lee is the solid veteran who can line up all over (and saved them in Tennessee last year), but he only caught 11 balls last season. Five teams last year had two tight ends that caught at least 30 and two of them, Baltimore and Cleveland, are in the division. (The others were San Diego, Carolina, New England.)
The Ravens drafted one in the third and one in the fourth in 2010, when the Bengals made Gresham a first-round pick, and like to move around Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta.
"(Charles) has got some toughness, too," said Hayes, who demands all his guy have to get dirty in the running game. "When he locks on to you, he locks on to you."
And Charles locks on, as evidenced by his 35 reps of 225 pounds at the combine. While he was a sophomore at Georgia, Charles struck up a relationship with Watson that evolved into spending time with his family this past summer while attending his football camp.
They're built a little differently but are about the same size (Watson is 6-3, 250) and while Watson is a solid receiver and blocker (25 career TDs while averaging 12 yards per catch and 31 catches per year), the Bengals are probably looking for a little more pop in the passing game.
But Watson is known as one of the game's more consummate pros and Charles gets that part of it.
"That's the one thing he told me: Approach it as a job and if you want to stay in the league as long as you want you have to treat it as a job and take care of your body," he said. "Ben definitely gave me a couple of good pointers I plan on using."
He already has. Hayes says, "He's got the right look in his eye," and after attending an event over the weekend in which Andrew Hawkins introduced A.J. Green with both coming off big rookie seasons, he sees Charles fitting right in.
"They did such a great job in a classy, humble, unselfish way in the way they represent their team and the community," Hayes said. "It's been a long time coming for us to get guys to understand you don't put yourself first, you put the team first. These guys have had success early and yet they're still putting the team first. Orson is the same type of kid. Very unselfish.
"But let's face it: They can play, too."