2-20-02, 9:20 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals are wasting no time in what promises to be a year of transition and experimentation at tight end. When off-season workouts begin the first of April, H-Back Nick Williams is going to make the switch and get a long look as a conventional tight end.
The 6-2, 270-pound Williams missed last season's first 10 games with a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament, but he played long enough to convince the Bengals he can be an effective H-Back, that hybrid fullback/tight end moving up and down the line of scrimmage blocking and catching.
Indeed, he showed enough that with just one tight end on the roster with more than two NFL starts, the Bengals want to see if Williams can go the next step and also play a pure tight end with his hand on the ground at the line of scrimmage.
"We have to find out. If you've never had your hand on the ground, its not that easy," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "We'll see what he looks like and if that rat dies, then we go back to him being the move guy."
Tony McGee is still penciled in as the starter for the 10th straight season at the pure or No. 1 tight end slot. But since he turns 31 in April, has ended the last two seasons on injured reserve with leg injuries, and is carrying a $1.8 million salary cap figure heading into the last season of his contract, the Bengals are starting to look at the position beyond 2002.
Williams is one of three restricted free agents (along with two exclusive rights free agents) who take another $2.3 million out of the Bengals' salary cap starting March 1. Throw in the club's estimated $3.6 million rookie pool and their reported $10. 2 million pad under the cap is reduced about in half. But they don't have to sign draft picks until July and that will give them some flexibility in free agency.
Still, they are tight enough that a three-for-one player such as Williams, drafted as a fullback in 1999 in the fifth round, is a bang-for-buck player.
"I'm excited about the move," said John Garrett, in his second week as the tight ends coach. "He has unique skill. He's a big man who can run down field and has the power to block at the point of attack and he's athletic. Because we don't have a great player there, why not try and see if you can develop him?"
Garrett isn't too concerned about Williams making the adjustment of working out of a three-point stance
on the line of scrimmage. But the key difference is he'll be, at times, blocking bigger people. Such as 300-pound defensive ends as opposed to 250-pound linebackers or 210-pound safeties.
"Those are technique things, like footwork," Garrett said. "That's something he has to learn. That's what offseasons are for. We think we can find out if he can do it before we go to training camp even though we won't be in pads (during April and May).
"What you'll determine it on from the off-season workouts is the naturalness of releases, the proper footwork, positioning, adjusting to the ball, if he can see everything from on the line," Garrett said. "I think we'll get him enough reps to find out if he can do it."
But Williams, 24, has battled his weight much of his pro career. Bratkowski remembers Williams also missed the season's last two games with a calf strain,
"The first thing he has to do is be in good physical shape because if he's not, he's going to get hurt and miss the reps," Bratkowski said. Asked what Williams' weight should be, Bratkowski's only requirement is, "not fat."
The Bengals might have had their two best offensive days of the season in the last two games with virtually no tight ends last year because of an amazing spate of injuries. But they are still a big part of Bratkowski's offensive philosophy that finds mismatches out of multiple formations that are many times dictated by the number and placement of the tight end.
The Bengals rolled up nearly 1,000 total yards with basically backup right tackle Jamain Stephens playing tight end on running plays and many of quarterback Jon Kitna's 751 passing yards coming out of four-receiver sets.
"You need a tight end," Bratkowski said. "You can't be in pass formations just to throw and have a run group in there just to run it. You can't paint yourself into that corner with the predictability of your personnel."
The Bengals haven't hid their desire to draft a tight end early for the second straight year. It's probably a reason that Garrett, one of their more highly-regarded scouts, got the tight ends job.
It means they will have two rookies because Sean Brewer, last year's third-round pick, missed all but the first two weeks of training camp with a groin injury. Still, they think Brewer's projected versatility as both a pure tight end and H-Back matched with Williams could give defenses fits.
"If the defense doesn't know which one is going to be lined up where and doing what," Garrett said, "that's to your advantage."