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Tight comparison

Jermaine Gresham

While Carlos Dunlap snapped, Geno Atkins crackled and Jordan Shipley caught the ball after getting popped, Jermaine Gresham was just, well, Jermaine Gresham.

Which is just what the Bengals wanted out of last year's first-round pick, the anchor of a class that yielded the most productive rookie seasons in club history. When they made Gresham the first tight end taken with the 21st pick, there was nary a ripple from the pundits. Even though he had missed the '09 season with a knee injury, his athleticism and speed for a man his size (6-5, 260) made it a no-brainer.

If there are those fretting the Bengals don't have a No. 1 receiver without Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, who says it has to be a wide receiver?

Although Gresham wasn't the red-zone target the Bengals must make him in the ensuing years, his rookie numbers are comparable or better than those of current Pro Bowlers and rookie tight ends, as well as the AFC North gold standard of Pittsburgh's Heath Miller and Baltimore's Todd Heap.

More catches and touchdowns than Pro Bowlers Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez had when they were rookies. More yards than Miller and Heap. More touchdowns than the Jets' Dustin Keller.

Player (Season) Games Catches Yds. Avg. TD
Gresham, CIN (2010) 15 52 471 9.1 4
Lewis, JAC (2006) 15 13 126 9.7 1
Witten, DAL (2003) 15 35 347 9.9 1
Gates, SD (2003) 15 24 389 16.2 2
Gonzalez, ATL (1997) 16 33 368 11.2 2
Hernandez, NE 14 45 563 12.5 6
Gronkowski, NE 16 42 546 13.0 10
Moeaki, KC 15 47 556 11.8 3
Heap, BAL (2001) 12 16 206 12.9 1
Miller, PIT (2005) 16 39 459 11.8 6
Keller, NYJ (2008) 16 48 535 11.1 3

Because different teams use their tight ends differently and because there are different genres of tight ends, receiving stats aren't always a great comparison. For instance, Keller is used more as a wide receiver while the other tight end, Ben Hartsock, is the blocker. And in his rookie year, 2008, Keller had Brett Favre as his quarterback instead of a young Mark Sanchez the past two seasons.

But what Gresham's numbers do suggest is the Bengals have a burgeoning talent with the potential of becoming the rarest of NFL breeds: A complete tight end that can make big plays in the passing game and blocks effectively in either phase.

"Certainly if he has careers like Heap and Miller, that would be very solid," says Mike Lombardi, a former general manager who is an NFL Network analyst. "He's more athletic than both and he's faster than both; Miller is a good pass blocker. Gresham has more upside than them, but he has to get there and a lot of it is up to him. He needs to improve his body. He needs to get stronger."

An NFL scout who is familiar with the AFC North says that while Heap is a good pass catcher, he's not in the class of Gresham and Miller when it comes to putting his body on the line. And there may be no tight end in the league that can run screens and cause havoc in space like Gresham.  

"Gresham proved this year he's not afraid to mix it up with guys like (James) Harrison and (LaMarr) Woodley in pass protection," the scout says. "He's strong, but he has to improve his technique. The toughest thing for both (running) backs and tight ends is pass pro and he's a guy that obviously can do it because he's a tremendous athlete. He's a physical guy in the run game who can block at the point and he can do what guys like Miller and Heap and a lot of tight ends can't do and that's make guys miss when they have the ball. He's a tremendous runner of screens. And he can win a matchup on one safety and outrun the other safety."

The two guys destined to be the most complete tight ends in the AFC for the next decade are Gresham and New England's Rob Gronkowski, drafted 21 spots after Gresham in the second round. They've looked to be locked together since they scored their first NFL touchdown 15 minutes apart in their debuts last Opening Day in Foxboro.

"What's interesting is that both of them had injuries that made them question marks or else they would have gone even higher," says Rob Rang, senior analyst for "It looked to me that Gresham was exactly what he was the last time he played (in 2008) before he got hurt. Every NFL scout I talked to last year said if Gresham and Gronkowski were healthy, it wouldn't be long before they made the Pro Bowl."

The 6-6, 265-pound Gronkowski, who had a back issue, is a good blocker who scored 10 touchdowns on 10 fewer catches than Gresham.

"Gronkowski is an all-around guy who can do damage down the seam," the scout says. "He's a very good athlete, but Gresham is more explosive. The Patriots offense is structured to go to the tight ends. They go with three tight ends and (wide receiver) Wes Welker a lot and not just in the red zone, but anywhere on the field."

It's hard to put the other Pats rookie tight end, fourth-rounder Aaron Hernandez, in the same category as Gresham and Gronkowski because at 6-2, 250 pounds he's seen as a big wide receiver that isn't going to block like those two.

"He's pretty much an H-back, a move guy," Lombardi says. "It's all about mismatches with him."

Gresham is a mismatch guy, too, and the fact he can play in all formations on all downs as he gets his assignments and technique down, it ups the frequency of those matchups.

"The big question with the scouts was his blocking because he didn't have to do it much in the spread offense at Oklahoma," Rang says. "But he clearly showed that he wants to do it and can do it because he's such a big, strong guy."

Gresham averaged just 9.1 yards per catch, but two current Pro Bowlers, Witten and Jacksonville's Marcedes Lewis, were also below 10 yards per catch when they were rookies.

"The Bengals were built to get the ball to their two receivers," Rang says. "But with Gresham coming back for his second year, he's probably going to become more of an option."

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