When he heard that Drew Sample was back in the fold Friday, Bengals tight ends coach James Casey flashed back to past draft boards.
Maybe it's because Casey and the staff are knee-deep in draft prep. Sample and new starter, Irv Smith Jr., signed in free agency last month, give him two second-rounders as the third and fourth tight ends taken in the 2019 draft. Also in his room is Devin Asiasi, a third-rounder and the second tight end taken in the Joe Burrow 2020 Draft who became a Bengal with a waiver claim after last year's final cuts.
"Ascending players," said Casey, himself a fifth-rounder in 2009. "From personal experience (his fifth season), that's when I felt like, 'I've got the confidence. I've got the understanding. Now I can really cut it loose.'
"Tight end is so hard to learn. The pass game. The run game. Special teams. So many nuances. When you know the basics, you can now focus on the things you need to be really good."
Tanner Hudson was an undrafted free agent in that 2019 draft, but he's also headed into his fifth season with a target from Tom Brady on one of his four Super Bowl plays for the Bucs, a total of 437 NFL snaps, and 10 catches for the Giants last season. That makes Nick Bowers the youngest of their five tight ends after he spent all last season on the practice squad following a rookie season in 2021 he played eight games for the Raiders.
That doesn't mean the Bengals are shutting down the draft board when it comes to tight ends. But with Sample saying he expects to be cleared in time for training camp, there is less stress on the position than there was a month ago when Asiasi, Hudson, and Bowers were the only ones under contract.
"The draft is great. It's kind of an unknown," Casey said. "The guys we have, we know what we've got. If they improve and they get more opportunities, that's how your team gets better. Draft picks you can grow and develop, that's an asset. And this draft has a lot of good ones. But I don't know how the draft is going to go. I'm fired up about the guys we have."
Now he has the 6-4, 258-pound Sample back after barely having him all last year. He missed three weeks of training camp with a knee strain and fought back to play in the opener before he suffered a season-ending tear of his MCL and PCL the next week when the knee was fallen on in Dallas. Even if he won't be on the field in spring ball, he says he can do pretty much everything now.
See the top 10 photos of Bengals TE Drew Sample
"It's just good to be back doing football things," Sample said. "I think we're going to take all the time we need so we can be ready for training camp. That's the plan. It's my fifth year in the offense, so that's no problem for me. It's just making sure my body is ready."
Casey believes he can break through this season as "an upper-echelon blocker." Sample played 458 snaps for the AFC champion Bengals as the blocking complement to C.J. Uzomah and he knows what a big game feels like.
Sample played 62 snaps in the AFC title game after Uzomah went down with a knee injury (he had a catch for two yards) and when Uzomah returned in two weeks Sample played 19 snaps in the Super Bowl.
"Drew is one of these guys you don't hear a lot about, but what he does is very valuable," Casey said. "A lot of the blocking, a lot of the catching. He knows the route and knows how he's supposed to run it. He doesn't get a lot of attention because he doesn't have a lot of catches, but he's a solid player. He knows our offense. He's a reliable receiver underneath and I think you'll see him stretch the field at times this year. He's a guy we know we can trust, the kind of guy you win with."
Sample has winning on his mind. He showed up at Paycor Stadium Friday after reportedly visiting the Cardinals and said family and coaching continuity had a lot to do with coming back.
"Our goal is to win the Super Bowl," Sample said. "We've been close the last couple of years. That's on everyone's mind. We know what it takes to get there. We've gotten there and fallen short. We've almost gotten there and fallen short. Everyone around here is motivated to get back to that."