Hobson's Choice: Tight spot

Q: What's up with Chase Coffman? Do the coaches think he can play? Great college stats, no blocking. Based on the direction the offense was going philosophy-wise, was this draft pick a bust? Do we draft a tight end again? I don't know who is available in free agency this offseason, but doesn't it stand to reason that we draft one and pick up a free agent? This is not the first time in recent history that we got really thin at this position. I remember Brad St. Louis being pressed into service before. I just think that it is an undervalued position for this franchise. If we are going to be a run-first and play-action pass team, I think that we need a guy who can play every down.*
Scott D., Huber Heights, OH**

SCOTT: When you had a healthy Reggie Kelly and Ben Utecht, there was no problem taking Coffman in the third round. You had your every-down guy in Kelly, your pass receiver in Utecht who could also block a little, and you could ease a project in like Coffman. So, really, it fit into the philosophy of protecting Palmer with the run while also trying to find him more weapons.

But the season-ending injuries to Kelly and Utecht in the first week of training camp wiped that all out and put them at square one. That's the main reason why I think this isn't the year to criticize offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. He was more open to criticism in '06 and '07, but getting what he did out of the running game with virtually no tight ends was a smoke-and-mirrors job.

Frankly, they don't know what to make of Coffman. There are people down on him and wonder if he can play, but no one really knows because one of the reasons he's a project is the time he missed last spring. They drafted him with a broken foot, and it never really healed because he was trying to get on the field for training camp. He developed other problems and they went in surgically to clean out the foot late in the season and they figure he should be OK.

But they don't know.

Yet they do know that Palmer has been harmed by the lack of a Dallas Clark-ish, Jason Witten-ish presence over the middle and they do know that Coffman has that kind of potential whether he can block or not.

Tough call. Do you draft another one? If you do, it would have to be in the first two rounds and maybe the first. Anything lower and it's going to be a kid like Coffman that you have to develop as a receiver or blocker.

Kelly is usually a linchpin to build around, but he's a free agent who turns 33 next month and is coming off a ruptured Achilles. They have to re-sign him, but he's a question mark physically. They got a serviceable guy off the waiver wire in J.P. Foschi, but given they are such a run-oriented team now, you are right, they probably have to delve into free agency. Not for big money, but for an experienced, solid guy.

And you have to think they're going to monitor Coffman's health before they proceed in the draft.

You hit it. One of the huge questions of the offseason.

Q: Do you think the Bengals will draft wide receivers in the first few rounds of the draft? If so, wouldn't it be a great benefit to spread the field with three or four wide receivers and then hand the ball to Cedric Benson? No cornerback will want to try to tackle him, plus it will give us many more options in the passing game. We need playmakers at wide receiver, plus I would love to see a cornerback try to tackle Cedric on a consistent basis.*
--Richard E., Mount Orab, OH

RICHARD:The consensus has to be that their major need is a speed receiver that can stretch the field so, yes, you'd have to think that is going to be their inclination in the draft. But I'm not sure why the three- and four-receiver sets would be attractive. The running game finally reached the consistency to win 10 games by going with more power formations and not with so many spread alignments.

The reason the Bengals used to use more multi-receiver sets is because that was their area of strength. They wanted to get as many of them on the field as they could. They're just not built that way right now. And I think that was a reason in 2006 and 2007 that they failed to run the ball for more than four yards per carry. Running out of the spread can be done on a minimal basis, but it is tough to do it on a steady diet. Plus, it is tougher to protect the quarterback. They lost Carson Palmer for 12 games in '08 because they couldn't protect him. Sure, there was the elbow injury, but the Saints provided foreshadowing a month before when they broke his nose in the preseason.

But you need three top-flight receivers, no question. Still, how much can you count on what that draft pick is going to give you? The Bengals, along with many teams, have had trouble getting much out of rookie receivers. The DeSean Jacksons are the exceptions rather than the rule, but that's where you get into the debate. Are the Jacksons and Austin Collies of the world the exceptions because they are talented or because they are in a good passing system?

Q: I have a simple question. I am not fully clear on the details of the no-cap year for 2010, but I fear that no salary cap will ruin football like it ruined baseball. Is every team going to essentially be a farm team for the Cowboys and Redskins much like every team is for the Yankees and Red Sox in baseball?
--*John C., Eaton, OH

JOHN: Just imagine if George Steinbrenner had owned the 1959 Giants instead of the 2009 Yankees. How screwed up would the NFL be?

One year of an uncapped system should not have a major impact like the one you're talking about. Because free agency goes from four years to six years with no cap, the pool of potential free agents is cut virtually in half.

Take the Bengals on that issue. No cap is actually going to help them retain restricted free agents like key role players Brandon Johnson, Rashad Jeanty, Frostee Rucker and Evan Mathis, guys that would have been unrestricted free agents with a cap. Their major UFAs (kicker Shayne Graham, right guard Bobbie Williams) would be free under either system. But in addition to one franchise and/or one transition, teams get an additional transition tag in a system without a cap, further evening the playing field and preventing any wide disparity.

Anything beyond 2010 is pure, uncut speculation. You have to believe that a cap system that has been so lucrative for both sides is going to be part of any future collective bargaining agreement. Steelers president Art Rooney II said this week that they'd only go one year without a cap and that the league would get through this year, indicating it would be a mere bump in the road.

Stay tuned.

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