Posted: 5:40 p.m.
Ever since Bengals tight ends combined to catch 58 catches in the first year of the Marvin Lewis administration, the numbers have decreased in each of the following four seasons before bottoming out at 32 last year.
But with the arrival of Ben Utecht and the departure of Chris Henry, never has there been more needed and expected from them in the Lewis era.
Bengals.com continues to break down each position group in preparation for this week's mandatory minicamp that opens Thursday with a look at the tight ends, that much scrutinized group that won't be overlooked this year.
"In years past we had three wide receivers. Now we're in an unknown place," says tight end coach Jon Hayes. "We have an opportunity to have some weapons that can stretch the field and weapons that can isolate some weaknesses on defense and be successful. ... We have a chance to go back to where we were in '03."
Throw in Lewis' offseason vow to run the ball better and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski spring-tinkering with more double tight end sets, more of the tight ends figure to be used more often. That may mean after a couple of seasons in which Lewis has kept just two tight ends at the final cut down, the Bengals could keep as many as four this trip.
If Daniel Coats successfully makes the switch from tight end to fullback, the Bengals could theoretically keep four running backs (for argument's sake Rudi Johnson, Chris Perry, Kenny Watson, DeDe Dorsey with Kenny Irons on PUP) and four tight ends with Coats swinging as both.
But those questions are a long way from being answered. And they won't be answered this week, the last time the club practices before the pads come on for the first time July 28 at training camp.
Daniel Coats (6-3, 255, second season, 15 NFL games with 12 catches)
The Bengals have put him primarily at fullback this spring with the hopes he'll be able to make the transition in training camp. But that wouldn't prohibit him from still being used as a tight end as a valuable 2-for-1 roster spot.
"That's a very possible scenario," says Hayes, who doesn't know if that would mean the Bengals wouldn't keep a fullback. "I have no idea how many guys we'd keep where. That's not my call. The thing about Dan is that he's a huge core special-teams guy and he's just going to get better. What he's doing at fullback isn't exactly foreign to him. He did some of it in our 'F' packages (where the tight end is the fullback in some personnel groups) and it's just a matter of him putting together all the fundamentals on a consistent basis."
The Bengals tried a similar conversion a few years ago when they moved Ronnie Ghent from tight end to fullback. But Ghent had never played in an NFL game.
Reggie Kelly (6-4, 250, 10th season, 136 NFL games with 153 catches)
The ultimate team player in the ultimate team game. If you're looking for one of the reasons why the Bengals have set a franchise record for allowing their fewest sacks in two of the last three seasons despite playing the sack-happy Steelers and Ravens twice a year, this guy is major.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh likes to call him "a Division III tackle," and Kelly gives defensive coordinators like Rex Ryan fits because he's the X-factor next to the talented bookend tackles.
"Look what he does in the pass game," Hayes says. "Don't forget that. When he's thrown the ball, he'll catch it. You don't see him dropping balls."
Kelly's biggest influence is in the locker room, where he's the spiritual leader and where Hayes is watching a tight bond grow with Utecht.
"They've already become good friends in a short amount of time and that can only help our team and build our team," Hayes says.
Nate Lawrie (6-7, 255, fourth season, 18 NFL games with two catches)
It's been quite a journey since the Bucs took him in the sixth round out of Yale in 2004. Lawrie wasn't in a camp until the Bengals suffered a spate of injuries at the position in the first few days at Georgetown last year and he ended up playing in three games while spending most of the year on the practice squad.
"Nate's strength lies in that he can do everything pretty well, but that's also a weakness," Hayes says. "He has to do one thing better. Not just be a utility guy. He's got to pick it up and be a core guy on special teams first and foremost and I think he can do that."
Matt Sherry (6-4, 255, Rookie)
Sherry, the sixth-rounder out of Villanova, fits right into Hayes' room of substance that already had the Ivy grad in Lawrie, the young father of three in the BYU-educated Coats, the team conscience in Kelly, and the Christian recording artist in Utecht.
Sherry, who began his master's degree work in his senior season, has impressed with his ability to run and catch but it's going to take more than that to impress Hayes.
"I'd like to see him in pads before I give you any true synopsis," he says. "I'm assuming he'll need to improve in the (blocking) game, but some guys look better in pads and some guys go the other way in pads. We'll see. He knows what he has to do, now he just has to do it. All these guys stay after practice and Matt's a smart guy always looking for information."
One thing Hayes wants to see in pads from Sherry:
"Zone recognition," he says. "Once you run through there and get your head knocked off a couple of times, you understand, 'This is zone. I just can't run through there.' "
Ben Utecht (6-6, 251, fourth season, 41 NFL games with 71 catches)
After a season the Bengals failed to run the ball and were unable to blow teams out of Cover 2 defenses, they went to free agency to add a tight end with numbers the Bengals haven't approached since Tony McGee in the late 1990s.
But even though Utecht caught 68 balls for the Colts in the last two seasons, his role as an in-line blocker complementing Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark also drew the Bengals to him because of his versatility.
As Bratkowski has indicated, Utecht's two-way game allows the Bengals to run more double tight-end sets, just the right tonic for an offense not only looking to run the ball better but also looking for that third vertical threat now missing with the loss of Chris Henry.
Utecht's value as a team guy has already surfaced along with his Xs and Os possibilities. He's not only become close with Kelly, but he's spent many post-practice moments bonding with quarterback Carson Palmer.
"This is great for Ben because he's a pro, but now he's watching how the consummate pro does it," Hayes says. "And it's a great opportunity for Reg to work with a guy who's coming from an offense where the tight end is heavily involved in the passing game."