Free agent additions give Bengals flexibility in draft

Credit: Charlie Neibergall

Credit: Charlie Neibergall

CINCNNATI —The tight end position has been one highlighted as an area the Cincinnati Bengals will need to address in the draft, and the recent signings of Irv Smith Jr. and Drew Sample don’t necessarily change that.

Bengals coach Zac Taylor confirmed Monday that Smith was signed to be the starting tight end replacement for Hayden Hurst, who left in free agency after one season. Smith’s addition and the re-signing of Sample just help give the team more flexibility when it comes to the draft next week.

“Now you feel good about the guys in that room right now,” Taylor said. “That’s one of those things that allows you to take the best players that are out there on the team and help you win. I feel really good about adding Irv. He’s a good weapon for you based on what he has done so far. We liked him coming out in the draft (in 2019) and the years he spent in Minnesota, I think he fits what we are looking for.

“Getting Drew back is important for us as well. He’s been so valuable for us. He got hurt in the second week and didn’t get a chance to play but we like what he has done throughout the years. Then we got all those guys, Devin (Asiasi) and a bunch of other guys who really did a nice job last year on the practice squad or the 53. So, guys that we are excited about their future also.”

Smith started 15 games over the three seasons he played in four years with Minnesota and now has an opportunity to prove himself in an offense where he will be given a chance to shine with Joe Burrow as his quarterback.

The former Vikings’ second-round draft pick out of Alabama missed the entire 2021 season with a torn meniscus, and in his return to the field in 2022, he landed back on injured reserve with an ankle injury after eight games. He returned for the regular-season finale against the Bears and said he has put those issues behind him.

“I feel great,” Smith said Monday. “I put all that kind of behind me. I put in a lot of work through the offseason so far and I’m just excited to show the coaches and my teammates the work I’ve put in and moving forward leading up to the season, but today is Day 1 and we’ll build from there.”

Smith called the opportunity to start in Cincinnati “definitely a big deal.” He felt wanted by the Bengals and welcomed by the coaches and his new teammates when he signed, and now he looks forward to showing there is more he can do for this offense.

“I feel like I’ve put some great tape out there so far and this is only scratching the surface of the player I desire to be,” Smith said.

Smith estimates this is probably the seventh or eighth offense he will have learned since his days at Alabama, where he had a new offense every year. He learned two different offenses in four years with the Vikings, but this seems like the “most fun offense” to learn because of how it is designed to get guys open and how Burrow uses his tight ends.

Burrow was a big factor in his decision to sign with the Bengals, being a talented young quarterback who has played in a lot of big games.

Cincinnati’s last two starting tight ends used successful seasons to earn more lucrative, long-term deals elsewhere, but Smith said he wasn’t thinking about the next contract when he was considering his options. Hurst got a three-year deal worth $21.75 million with the Panthers, and C.J. Uzomah, before him, signed a three-year, $24 million contract with the Jets.

“My No. 1 reason wanting to come here was just the fact they’ve had so much success and winning,” said Smith, the son of the former Saints, 49ers and Browns tight end with whom he shares a name. “For me as a player, I’ve been a part of winning cultures my whole life, and that’s something I pride myself on, and I want to bring that winning attitude and winning mentality to this team. Those were my personal things, but in terms of the big picture, I want to win championships and that’s why I’m here.”

As for the Bengals’ potential plans to draft a tight end to develop, Smith said he’s not worried about that. It wasn’t something that came up when he signed either.

“That wasn’t really conversated,” Smith said. “It was more just I’m confident in my abilities, and they had a plan for me coming in. I’m here for a reason so at the end of the day that’s all I can ask for and just leave it up to God and put the work in.”

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