With Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert out Sunday, Jermaine Gresham figures to be a go-to guy.
Jermaine Gresham is hugely talented, extremely personable, and highly-regarded in the Bengals scheme of things.
Especially in Sunday's Paul Brown Stadium opener (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) when the Bengals play the Falcons without tight end Tyler Eifert and wide receiver Marvin Jones, players that combined for 90 catches and 12 touchdown last season.
Yet the two-time Pro Bowl tight end senses he's "a villain," in Bengaldom.
"There's a lot of great players in my class. And pretty much everybody is disappointed that I'm not what certain people are," Gresham said after Thursday's practice in a rare interview with the local media.
"I would like to be loved by a lot more people, but it's just the nature of the sport. It comes and goes...
In my eyes, it just is what it is, and I kind of accept the villain role, and try to be a leader to guys like Tyler who are learning on the way, and make sure I'm good for them. As long as my teammates love me, I'm good."
Gresham is very good. But he gets the sense people don't think he's good enough. It didn't help that he spent last season trying to tame the inconsistencies that have plagued his game lately. They surfaced in last Sunday's 23-16 victory over the Ravens. The most penalized player on offense last year with 11 flags, Gresham had a false start. He also cost them a touchdown when he stopped running his wide-open route in the red zone and quarterback Andy Dalton gunned an incompletion when he expected Gresham to keep crossing the field.
"That was my fault. I take blame for that,' Gresham said. "It was a concept read wrong. I should have kept going. It would have been a touchdown. I owe Andy one."
They came off the field together late Wednesday, the day Eifert was lost for the next nine weeks with what is believed to be a dislocated elbow. Gresham isn't expecting his role to change much with Eifert out of there, but that's the thing about Gresham. Unlike Eifert, he's a big-time blocker in the run game and he'll have to make up for the loss of Eifert and Jones in both the run and pass.
"As long as my teammates know they can count on me to get things done to win football games, that's all that matters," Gresham said. "I want to please them and make them happy. I just want to be good for the next guy next to me to make sure he can count on me to win the game. "
While Eifert is continually talked about as the nightmare matchup, Gresham was also drafted 21st in his class and possesses a lot of the same skill sets that make it dicey for linebackers and safeties to cover him and Eifert. Height, athleticism and speed. He might not have Eifert's ball skills, but not many do.
"Tyler's a smaller guy and has a little more wiggle to him," Gresham said. "He's a great player and I'm the other tight end who everybody hates. I'm pretty used to it by now. He's a great player. He brought something to the team that's definitely going to be missed. We just have to find it another way until he gets back."
"I see everything. It's just life. That's all I'm going to say about that," he said.
He's polite and funny, but is reserved around the media after some unpleasant college experiences. He's got a great needling sense of humor, so sometimes it's tough to know when he's serious.
He was serious here:
"I'm not a bad person. I'm just kind of private. Don't take offense to it."
But probably not here:
I'm all right. I'm OK. I'm below average," he said of himself as a player.
Gresham was the first tight end taken in that heralded class of 2010. Jimmy Graham, the gold standard, went to a New Orleans offense in the third round with no dominant wide receiver that also had an entrenched offense run by a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback in Drew Brees and just became the highest paid tight end ever.
Rob Gronkowski, the most high profile of the class, had a 90-catch, 17-TD season in his second season with Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady desperately seeking any kind of receiver.
But injuries have slowed him. Since that season, Gronkowski has 98 catches and 16 touchdowns while Gresham has 112 catches and nine touchdowns playing with a young quarterback, a Pro Bowl wide receiver, and another first round tight end.
Gronkowski's 2013 was cut short by injury and even though he played just seven games, he had one more target (64) than Gresham (63), according to profootballfocus.com.
But Gresham had a better catching percentage with 73 percent to Gronkowski's 60.9. In fact, the only top tight end with a better percentage last season was Cleveland's Jordan Campbell with 73.4. Graham, with 136 targets, was at 63.2, Jason Witten with 109, was at 67 percent, and Tony Gonzalez, with 115 targets, was at 72.2.
He was the most penalized tight end in the league, but his three drops were fewer than Graham, Witten, Gonzalez, Campbell and Eifert.
Asked who is doing all this hating, Gresham doesn't want to say.
"People want certain things to be a certain way and things aren't a certain way they don't like it and they voice their opinion," Gresham said. "It's not the class or (those) guys. They are a great class. You can name the guys. We talked about it before. It is what it is, you got to play with what you got and make the best of that."
Gresham has an idea how the villain softens.
"(For) me to go for like 1,300 yards, 20 TDs and all the fans and people love me," he said, acknowledging that's tough to do with A.J. Green around. "That would be tough, wouldn't it? At the end of the day it's about winning games."
With Eifert and Jones out, look for some numbers Sunday.