3-14-03, 7:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Reggie Kelly plans to make the walk May 10 to get his degree at Mississippi State. As for the talk, his new quarterback spoke volumes about the newest Bengal.
Jon Kitna has already asked equipment gurus Rob Recker and Jeff Brickner to put Kelly's locker as close to his as possible at Paul Brown Stadium. Kitna, who just happened to meet his future tight end a few weeks ago at the Professional Athletes Outreach convention, doesn't want to let his newest receiver get far from his sight.
"Reggie and (Matt) Schobel are going to be a great 1-2 punch," Kitna predicted this week of this sudden double tight end set. "Between those two guys, you'd like to get them between 70 and 75 balls. It seems to me that Reggie is the type of guy they're bringing in here. Solid, professional, and getting free agents who want to come to Cincinnati. That's half the battle. I'm excited to get back out there."
This is the kind of guy Kelly is. After a breakout 31-catch season in 2000, the Falcons went to more double, and triple tight end sets and he ended up catching just 30 balls the past two seasons combined.
"That's the way it's been all my career," Kelly said. "I'm brainwashed to do whatever I can to help the team. If you're asked to sacrifice for the team, that's what I'll do."
Which is why Kitna has watched the Bengals' flurry of activity the past week with delight ("It's been awesome,"), agreed with the non-matching of linebacker Takeo Spikes, and
understood how fullbacks Lorenzo Neal and Nicolas Luchey got away.
"Takeo didn't want to be here," Kitna said. "We got younger and there's going to be no grumbling coming into training camp. We would loved to have kept Lorenzo and Nick. Lorenzo was our best football player in the sense that he also played special teams. But with the other needs they're talking about, like a speed receiver and having enough money for the No. 1 pick, I knew we just didn't have the room to match on guys that play a position that probably isn't going to be on the field 40 percent of the time."
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski realizes that signing a fullback remains a top priority. But he also feels the addition of Kelly takes pressure off whoever it is going to be because Kelly is comfortable lining up as a blocker in the backfield.
Although Kelly is known as a fine blocker and Schobel is coming off a 27-catch rookie season that establishes his credentials as a receiving tight end, Bratkowski doesn't yet want to set it in stone that Kelly is the No. 1 tight end and Schobel is the No. 2, or move tight end.
"Generally, the move guy is the receiver and Matt fits that role," Bratkowski said. "But both guys can catch the ball and I don't want to indicate that Matt can't be a good blocker because he got better at it last year. The bottom line is we now have two legitimate tight ends and we've got the kind of competition that is going to elevate everyone else's play."
The Bengals have more tight ends (seven) than running backs (five) and wide receivers (five) at the moment with Brad St. Louis, Sean Brewer, Chris Edmonds, Tony Stewart and Derek Smith also on the roster. Brewer, who has played just three games since they took him in the third round in the 2001 draft, says his torn knee cartilage that was repaired twice in five weeks last year is fine.
"I've been down here every day working out and trying to get better," Brewer said. "Competition brings out the best in people and I'm not throwing in the towel. Before I got hurt, I was the starter, so I must have showed them something."
What the 6-3, 255-pound Kelly has shown is being physical enough with defensive ends to budge them off the line and quick enough to pick off linebackers. Since Tony McGee and Marco Battaglia were forced from the lineup late in the 2001 season, the only thing rarer for the Bengals than a double tight-end set has been a victory.
"This gives us much more flexibility with our formations," Bratkowski said. "It's a big upgrade for the running game, particularly in the red zone and goal-line situations."
Those weren't grand moments during the 2002 season. Running back Corey Dillon averaged 3.1 yards per carry in the red zone (49 carries for 153 yards), and 4.3 yards everywhere else.
"That's a definite plus," said Kelly of his decision. "I know how important the running game is here and I think I can contribute there."
But one of the reasons Kelly is headed out of Atlanta is because he knows he can catch the ball. As a rookie, he had a 50-yard catch, which a Bengals' tight end hasn't had since McGee had a 54-yarder in 1994. In 2000, Kelly had a 37-yard touchdown catch. The Bengals have gone 39 straight games without a tight end catching a pass of 30 yards or longer.
"I don't know which guy is going to be the receiver, but figure that guy ought to catch something like 50 balls," Kitna said. "I don't think you know who that guy is going to be yet. If Brat thinks Reggie Kelly is the guy who can make plays down the field, then it's going to be Reggie Kelly. (Falcons quarterback) Chris Chandler was a wide receiver guy and I'm sure when Mike Vick came in as a rookie, he wasn't having an easy time going to his second and third options and that's usually what the tight end is."
Like Kitna, Kelly, 26, is involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and he'll go anywhere to speak if they want to hear about his faith. As a smart, committed player coming from a playoff team, Kelly qualifies for several of the Marvintangibles.
"And he's dying to play here," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.
Yet, Kelly isn't sure what he's going do with his degree in Industrial Technology after making the SEC All-Academic honor roll three straight years with a 3.3 grade point average.
"Put it on the wall for now," Kelly said. "My main goal is to get my college degree. Then I'll think about that in the future."
For now, the Bengals think they have graduated to the school of two tight ends.
"It's going to prove to be an important pickup for us," Bratkowski said.