Hobson's Choice: Big Ben large move

Q: I don't understand the fascination with Ben Utecht. I will agree that he is an upgrade to our current tight ends, but I think you also have to agree that he is not the answer. Is Brat going to be able to provide the same opportunities as the Colts to fit his skill set? I am under the impression that he is not of the starter caliber, nor is he the caliber TE to be in a traditional role. What happened to the hype for Coats?
--Adam, Mason, Ohio

ADAM: There's no fascination. No one anointed him John Mackey. It's just what you said. No more, no less. He's a solid upgrade at a spot where the Bengals need help. But don't ho-hum those numbers or the versatility that is attached to them.

Utecht's 741 yards on 68 catches the past two seasons is more than any tight end has done around here in back-to-back seasons in more than a decade. After Matt Schobel's 51 catches for 544 yards in his first two seasons of 2002-2003, you have to go back to Tony McGee's 52 for 653 from 1999-2000 to come anywhere close. In 1996 and 1997, the last two 30-catch seasons by a Bengals tight end, McGee, was 72 for 860.

And Utecht is not a perennial backup. He has started 30 games the past three years and he's taken more than 60 percent of the snaps the last two years. The guy is a traditional tight end, which should help spice up a Bengals scheme that gets banged for being too predictable.

With Clark splitting out, Utecht had to be the in-line blocker, and he did it for a Colts running game that was quite effective in its run to the Super Bowl the year before last.

But he has also shown he can get vertical and make some plays downfield. All but 10 of his catches went for first downs last season. He also had six plays of 20 yards or more. Which is what Bengals tight ends Reggie Kelly and Dan Coats combined for last season.

I'm not sure there was any hype about Coats, beyond that he made the team as a college free agent. He had a pretty good rookie year and, if he keeps improving, could be an heir apparent to Kelly as a blocker but he's got a long way to go because Kelly is one of the best.

I'd say Utecht is a good get. I don't know what you mean by The Answer, but he has some answers. He's a solid guy. He's been on winners. He gives them something they've needed for a long time with his pass catching and he's got a lot of experience as a blocker that should allow them to use more double tight end sets that ought to aid them running the ball and be more diversified.

As for using Utecht's skill set, he comes to a pretty similar offense with a great quarterback and two Pro Bowl receivers. He ought to fit right in, and maybe even better with no Clark in front of him.

No one is fitting him for a bust in Canton. But he's far from a bust when you add up what he brings to this team.


Q: After watching Chad Johnson on First Take, it is obvious that he doesn't want to be in Cincy and sounds like a possibility that he holds out. So why doesn't the front office make a trade to get another first round pick?
--Nathan C., Ada, OH

NATHAN: There are economic and depth reasons why the club has ruled out a trade. Many see it is a gamble. But the nuts and bolts of trading a five-time Pro Bowler make it fantasy football.

The hit of a trade on the salary cap of more than $8 million would paralyze a team that already has a $7.5 million tag on Stacy Andrews. Plus, Chad and T.J. are the only receivers on the roster that have had more than 50 catches in an NFL season.

And, if you take away Chris Henry, which can happen with one letter from Roger Goodell, there are just 111 NFL catches on the roster and 93 of those belong to the oft-injured Antonio Chatman.

The Bengals just don't see it as a legit, viable option. Simply put, they feel Chad is one of their best players and there's no way they can replace him. They also must be banking on the hard feelings from last season to dissolve in time for the start of training camp. There have been allusions to Michael Strahan and Lance Briggs, angry men that eventually came around.

And, judging from his remarks on ESPN Tuesday, they are much tamer than the fires he set in January and February.

Yes, he said he doesn't know if he can get to a Super Bowl with the Bengals and he's undecided about wanting to play in Cincinnati this season and he hinted he won't be around for the offseason workouts that begin Monday. Even with his $250,000 workout bonus as incentive.

But he also toned down the rhetoric. In the wake of Shaun Smith's reminisces about the halftime incident during the playoff game two years ago, Johnson said Tuesday that while punches weren't thrown his frustration was out of place.

No question it's a tremendous gamble on the part of the front office. If they don't trade him and he becomes a distraction, a precious season could be shot.

But Ocho also has to be aware of all the goodwill he has built up in Cincinnati and around the NFL that has translated into valuable endorsements. That could all be flushed down the drain with a summer soap opera. There are risks on both sides.

Meanwhile, the Bengals have used up enough cap room in the last couple of weeks to make an $8 million move prohibitive. When you figure Andrews' tag of $7.5 million, new defensive end Antwan Odom's estimated $6 million cap hit, and tight end Ben Utecht's hit of nearly $3 million added in with the estimated $6 million for draft picks and injury protection, they ended up choosing to make moves they hoped would improve the team.


Q: Best underneath threat would be Kenny Watson. He holds team record with most catches for a halfback, one more than Chris Perry, and also a better yards per catch than Perry. So get it right and give the man credit. Admit it, you and the Bengals are wrong about Watson.
--Tim, Fairfield, OH

TIM: Perry, in my view, is the best underneath threat Carson Palmer has had because Palmer's best completion percentage ever (67.8) came with Perry as the third-down back in 2005. All I've said about Watson is that he's one of the top third-down backs in the game, so he hasn't been short-sheeted any credit here.

Watson caught 52 balls in '07, which is three shy of the club record for a running back set by James Brooks in 1985. Watson had 374 receiving yards for a 7.2 average, long of 43, and no touchdowns. In '05, Perry finished with 51 catches for 328 yards and a long of 28 with two touchdowns.

Let's note here that Perry had two long catches called back because of penalties, an 86-yarder against Minnesota and a 43-yarder against Tennessee. They don't count, but it shows how quickly he could take the Bengals vertically from underneath in the passing game.

And don't forget the leaping 28-yarder down the sideline that kept them in the Colts game. No one has made a play like that for Palmer that hasn't been a wide receiver.

No knock on Watson. The guy is a great pro, a tough, all-around back, and one of the most important guys on the team. But Perry is a guy, when healthy, that could turn a checkdown pass into a first down with his speed and athleticism. Combine that with Palmer's numbers, and, in my opinion, that made Perry the best underneath option.

I can understand why you think I'm wrong about Watson, but I'm not sure what you mean about the Bengals being wrong about him. I'm assuming you think he should have played more this past season and I tend to agree.

When it was obvious that Rudi's hamstring still wasn't right in the middle of the year, they should have used Watson more and given Rudi a couple of more games to rest it.

But, they were also probably concerned about wearing Kenny down because he never carried more than 116 times in a season. Still, his 4.3 yards on 178 carries and Rudi's 2.9 on 170 carries point to Watson's effectiveness and the extent of Johnson's injury.

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