The Cincinnati Bengals took a gamble — albeit an inexpensive one — when they signed Irv Smith Jr. in free agency, given the tight end’s injury history.
The much bigger wager came a month later when the Bengals went into a draft stocked with tight end talent, looked around, said, “Nah, we’re good,” and walked away without one.
They’ve been rolling snake eyes ever since.
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Should the Cincinnati Bengals Make a Change at Tight End?
Smith has missed two games with a hamstring injury, and he’s been mostly invisible in the passing game when he’s played, recording just six catches on 11 targets for 32 yards in four starts.
The two targets that were not receptions were a pass from Joe Burrow that bounced off Smith’s hands on third down in the season opener in Cleveland and a pass that went off his hands on third down this past Sunday against Seattle.
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In Week 5, Smith played 50 snaps, and none of Burrow’s 49 official pass attempts were thrown his way. (Burrow did target him once on a play wiped out by a penalty.)
- In 2022, Hayden Hurst had 14 catches for 104 yards and a touchdown on 21 targets in his first four games.
- In 2021, C.J. Uzomah had nine catches for 134 yards and touchdowns on nine targets through four games.
- And in 2020, Drew Sample had 12 catches for 100 yards on 16 targets. Uzomah had eight catches for 87 yards and a touchdown in less than two games before suffering a season-ending Achilles injury.
“We’ve had things trying to get (him) the ball and trying to focus on that, but we haven’t had the same production as we did a year ago,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said.
“That’s not necessarily a fault of Irv’s. We’ve called plenty of things to get the ball to him, and either it hasn’t gone to him — and most of them haven’t — so it’s kind of an unfair picture to paint for Irv.
“I just think that there needs to be more production on offense in general, for everybody,” Callahan added.
Burrow didn’t have training camp to establish trust with Smith, and when the first pass he threw him was dropped on 3rd-and-1, that lingers.
Smith did catch three of the four passes Burrow threw him after that for 17 yards. The first was an eight-yard pass on 3rd-and-10, in which Smith wasn’t able to make a defender miss to get the first down.
The next was a three-yard checkdown on 3rd-and-8. And finally, another checkdown on 3rd-and-10 where Smith made the first Cleveland defender miss before help arrived to stop the play for a six-yard gain.
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The next week against Baltimore, there was an early deep shot along the right sideline on 3rd-and-8 where Smith couldn’t get his second foot down to complete the catch. Later, on 3rd-and1 in the fourth quarter, Smith caught a six-yard pass but was unable to break a shoestring tackle by safety Kyle Hamilton with all kinds of room to run if he had.
On the latest episode of the PFN #Bengals Podcast, @DallasDRobinson and I assess the team’s offensive struggles and weigh some possible fixes, plus we hand out bye week awards for Team MVP, Most Improved, Top Newcomer, Biggest Disappointment and more:
— Jay Morrison (@ByJayMorrison) October 17, 2023
Since then, Smith’s been a complete non-factor, with two games missed due to a hamstring injury, the zero-target game in Arizona, and one catch for five yards against Seattle.
The Bengals called a play for Smith on their opening touchdown drive, but it was a slow-developing one, with him staying in to block and then releasing across the field. It was wide open, but Joe Mixon and Jonah Williams both missed their blocks, and Burrow had no choice but to checkdown to a WR screen to Ja’Marr Chase.
The talking point from the coaches whenever questions arose about ignoring the position were that they felt really good about the tight ends they have in the room with Drew Sample, Mitch Wilcox, and Tanner Hudson.
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But Sample’s primary role is as a run blocker, and Wilcox’s is on special teams. Hudson caught a couple of passes from Burrow while Smith was out, but the Bengals used two of his three allowed elevations from the practice squad.
After the third, the team would have to put Hudson on the active 53-man roster. Head coach Zac Taylor sounded as though that option could be on the table after the bye.
“We’ve got a lot of great players on the practice squad,” he said. “We’re at the point with our roster where we feel like those guys can all contribute for us. It’s not as much pure developmental guys. It’s guys we really feel are an extended roster for us.
“Tanner did a great job when his number was called in this two games. He stepped up and filled the role. We’ll always look at ways to use the talents we have on our team. You go into the bye and have a chance to look at your roster as a whole.”
Would Cincinnati cut Smith and try to bring him back on the practice squad? Would another team claim him if they did? Would Hudson be that much of an improvement and worth completely thinning out the options?
Would a team that doesn’t like to trade make a move to add another tight end before the Oct. 31 deadline?
Those are all questions being weighed as the Bengals prepare to come out of their bye faster than they came out of the preseason.
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