Tight trio looks to take next step

7-26-04, 5:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

**Bengals.com takes a look at each position as the first practice of training camp on July 31 closes in. Starter Reggie Kelly leads a field of four tight ends in maybe the most pat of pre-season competitions. (Years of experience in parenthesis).

LEADERSHIP PLUS:Reggie Kelly (6).

THIRD-DOWN THREAT:** Matt Schobel (3)

**

DOES IT ALL: Tony Stewart (4).

NFL EUROPE FIND:** Chad Hayes (1).

With the Browns' drafting of Kellen Winslow Jr., the AFC North is suddenly the NFL's showcase for catchy tight end play. There are the sexy names like Winslow and Ravens Pro Bowler Todd Heap, as well as the Steelers' former 53-catch guy in Jay Riemersma.

But even though the Bengals' trio caught just 58 last season, tight ends coach Jon Hayes wouldn't swap their substance for stats.

"We've got blue collar guys. There's not much flash, but I'm not looking for flash," Hayes said. "There are going to be guys that possibly make bigger plays with the ball in their hands, but these guys make plays without the ball in their hands, and those are the guys that get you where you want to go. These guys are consistent day in and day out."

That said, Hayes, one of the more demanding coaches on the staff, wants more "Recs," or catches this season and more plays with the ball because they are more familiar with the system: "If they do that, we'll be in good shape."

Schobel is the receiving threat, the guy who can make something big happen down the field and has. The third-down ace's 13.8 yards per his 24 catches was second best on the team to Pro Bowl wideout Chad Johnson. And you can talk about his winning touchdown catch against Pittsburgh, but it was his 45-yard touchdown catch on third-and-eight when the 1-4 Bengals trailed the Ravens, 7-0, that may have rescued the season in a game the Bengals won, 34-26.

But Schobel knows he needs to get over his spate of hamstring problems (they kept him out a chunk of this spring's camps) and continue to work on his blocking because Hayes is going to need him at times on first and second downs.

There are some insiders who felt Stewart was the club's most improved player last season, but Hayes doesn't think that is altogether fair to Stewart because he was here for only the tail end of the 2002 season after the Bengals claimed him off the Eagles practice squad. Arriving with the rep as mainly a blocker, the 6-5, 260-pound Stewart proved nimble in the passing game last season with 21 catches and is the guy that Hayes turns to for all three downs.

"The strength of Tony's game is his overall game. His versatility," Hayes said. "I think it was a case that he just needed an opportunity and he proved he's a solid guy catching as well as blocking."

A look at how key Stewart was came in the four games Kelly missed with a broken foot. The Bengals won three of them and had a 100-yard rusher in each.

When healthy, Kelly more than capably filled the job description they filled out for him when the Bengals picked him up from Atlanta in free agency before last season: Exceptional blocker, reliable player on first and second downs, Pro Bowl leader in the locker room. The injury held him to 13 catches, but Hayes provides a warning.

"People forget that Reggie can sneak up on you as an intermediate receiver and I hope he can do more of that this year," Hayes said.

Last year was the first year since 2000 that the Bengals had an intact tight end corps for the entire season, a flaw that many felt doomed the club in '01 and'02. The impact of the addition of the blocking Kelly and Stewart came through like a punch in the nose in the red-zone stats.

In 2002, the Bengals were 27th in touchdown percentage once they got inside the foes' 20-yard-line. In 2003, they were seventh.

"I think that also shows you what happens when you emphasize something," Hayes said. "When Marvin came in, he worked on that right away."

The Bengals are pretty much set with those three, but the 6-6, 254-pound Chad Hayes could stick around on the expanded eight-man practice squad. A first-year player, his athletic catches caught the Bengals' eye on tape from NFL Europe and they saw a lot of his tape because he played on the same team with All-Europe running back Skip Hicks.

"He's definitely an athletic guy. I think he'll push our guys," said Jon Hayes, no relation. "We won't be able to see how he blocks until we get the pads on him." **

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