Bengals go back to drawing board at tight end

Tanner Hudson led all Bengals TEs in receptions and receiving yards in 2023. Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI -- Ahead of one of the Bengals' most important games of 2023, the team made an important decision regarding its tight ends.

Irv Smith Jr., the team's Week 1 starter who was signed in free agency during the offseason, was going to be inactive for a pivotal Week 16 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers that carried massive playoff implications. Smith, who signed a one-year deal in the offseason, worked hard to show the coaching staff he could be a top option. But between injuries that week and other players performing well, he was a healthy scratch for the 34-11 loss to Pittsburgh.

He didn't take another snap the rest of the season, a quiet admission that the team's offseason strategy to fill the void at tight end didn't pan out.

That leaves Cincinnati looking to find solutions for that position. The Bengals currently have no tight ends under contract for 2024. But whether it's making a splash in free agency or using the No. 18 overall pick on a tight end, history and stats show why significant investment might not give the team great value.

For starters, the Bengals traditionally do not use tight ends a significant amount. In coach Zac Taylor's first season in 2019, Cincinnati led the NFL in offensive formations that featured "11 personnel" -- one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. The Bengals were fifth in that category in 2023.

"We're predominantly 11 personnel," Taylor said after the 2023 draft.

And it has proven to be effective, especially when quarterback Joe Burrow has been healthy. From Week 5 to Week 10 of last season, the Bengals ranked third in the NFL in expected points added (EPA) when in 11 personnel, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

When the Bengals' offense has been at its best under Burrow, it has produced explosive plays. In 2021, when wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase was a rookie, Cincinnati led the NFL in yards per pass attempt. Defenses adjusted accordingly to limit Burrow from feasting on deep balls.

However, tight ends have not seen that type of action. Since 2021, Burrow has never ranked higher than 30th in air yards per attempt when targeting a tight end, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

But previous Bengals tight ends were still able to display their value to the rest of the league even within Cincinnati's offense. C.J. Uzomah and Hayden Hurst, the previous two starters, earned a combined $28 million in guaranteed money in free agency when they signed with the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers, respectively. Smith's one-year deal with the Bengals was valued at $1.75 million, per Roster Management System.

To fill the void next season, the Bengals could turn to familiar options.

Drew Sample, a second-round pick in 2019, has been integral to Cincinnati's offensive success because of his run blocking and has continued to develop as a receiving option.

"You can't really say enough positive things about Drew Sample and the role he plays on our team, the confidence everyone has in him," Taylor said last December. "When he's in a meaningful position in the game, he's gonna make it work."

Last year, Tanner Hudson emerged as the top receiving tight end on the roster. After starting the year on the practice squad, he was signed to the active roster midway through the season and was fifth on the team in receiving yards. Hudson's production made a strong impression on Burrow.

"He made plays when his opportunity presented and made the most of them," Burrow said. "I'm excited to really have a full offseason with him and work and talk and see what he can do."

Cincinnati also could select a tight end with the No. 18 overall pick in this year's draft. Last year, the Bengals were open to drafting one had the right player been available.

"There were certainly guys we liked in the draft, but they weren't there when we picked sometimes and we were comfortable with that," Taylor said at the end of last year's draft. "We were comfortable standing firm with the room if we had to."

How Cincinnati decides to address its tight end situation will play a major factor in what the offense looks like in 2024, when the Bengals aim to regain their status as AFC contenders.