Tight ends could be bigger part of Bengals’ offense

Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Torry McTyer (20) breaks up a pass to Cincinnati Bengals tight end Drew Sample (89) during an NFL football team scrimmage in Cincinnati, Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Torry McTyer (20) breaks up a pass to Cincinnati Bengals tight end Drew Sample (89) during an NFL football team scrimmage in Cincinnati, Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Rookie quarterback Joe Burrow comfortable with Drew Sample, C.J. Uzomah

Joe Burrow has said he will gladly utilize every weapon available to him as he makes the transition to the NFL as the Cincinnati Bengals’ starting quarterback.

That could include using the tight ends more in the passing game than the team did last year with Andy Dalton.

Burrow, the No. 1 overall draft pick, showed a level of comfort with Drew Sample and C.J. Uzomah during training camp, and as he prepares for his debut Sunday in the season opener against the L.A. Chargers, those two could be important pieces for him. Rookie quarterbacks in the past have favored using tight ends, and Sample and Uzomah have emerged as more reliable targets.

“I think we’re always trying to make the quarterback’s job easier, whether that’s winning vs. man or finding the spots in zone,” Sample said. “I think I can, and C.J. and guys in our tight end room can be a good outlet for him, just getting on the same page with him. Joe sees the whole field. Everyone’s gotta be on the same page and I think that’s something that we’re definitely trying to build.”

The Bengals should have all their weapons available on offense, as Bengals coach Zac Taylor noted in his first press conference of the week Monday that A.J. Green “looked good” in practice as he continues to work back from a hamstring issue that limited him the last couple weeks. Cincinnati will be missing one piece on defense, as the Bengals placed cornerback Trae Waynes on injured reserve and added Torry McTyer to the roster Monday in his place.

As far as the tight ends, Uzomah and Sample both looked like comfortable targets for Burrow in training camp. Cethan Carter also is on the roster as a backup and special teams contributor.

Uzomah had a breakout year in 2018, stepping up while now departed tight end Tyler Eifert was out because of injury. That season Uzomah finished with 43 catches for 439 yards and three touchdowns on 64 targets, and he followed with another solid showing last year even when targets to the tight ends weren’t as frequent. He had 27 catches for 242 yards and two touchdowns last year.

Meanwhile, Sample appears capable of being more productive in the passing game than his rookie season in 2019 after he was drafted in the second round as an especially strong blocker in the running game. Sample finished with 30 yards on five catches and six targets but was sidelined for the final seven games because of a high ankle spring suffered in Week 9.

“Obviously last year didn’t end how I wanted it to, but this year, even with no OTAs and just online stuff, I feel much more confident in my assignments and the playbook,” Sample said. “(After) being in camp, I feel like the game is starting to slow down a little bit. I’m feeling good in my calls and I’m starting to feel more comfortable in my routes and my assignments. I definitely feel more comfortable in the offense and that’s allowed me to play faster and with more confidence.”

Sample came back looking stronger, and he said he put on some muscle but doesn’t feel heavier. He and Sam Hubbard worked out together during the offseason and he focused on a clean-eating diet to make sure he remained lean even while building strength.

Part of his focus has been on trying to be more effective in the passing game, but being more comfortable in Zac Taylor’s system also should help with that. He already showed flashes of that in training camp while developing a rhythm with Burrow.

“I think it’s probably a combination of a bunch of different things,” Sample said. “I feel like we have a lot more opportunities this year, especially early in camp and doing a lot of things in the offense. This offseason I worked on catching the football and routes and things like that. Like I said, the game does slow down a little bit once you get more comfortable in the offense. I think it’s a little bit of everything. We are definitely taking advantage of the opportunities we have, and the offseason work coupled with a better understanding of the offense both helped.”

Taylor said the Bengals have a lot more options on the table this year in the passing game with the tight ends seeming more comfortable and the running backs proving to be solid pass catchers as well. The wide receiver group also has some depth with A.J. Green looking to return to his healthy form and second-round draft pick Tee Higgins coming along slowly after a hamstring issue early in training camp.

The Bengals didn’t use two-tight end packages much last year, but Taylor said he’s been pleased with progress from Uzomah and Sample and it’s possible both could be utilized together.

“We’re open to any personnel groupings that are going to help us score points and win games,” Taylor said. “... We feel like we’ve got the horses and the depth to be flexible and keep defenses of balance. That’s something that excites us.”

Uzomah said last year the team wasn’t in a position to use the tight ends more last year because the Bengals were behind in so many games and needed to stretch the field more with the receivers. He hopes that won’t be an issue this year.

“I want the responsibility and the onus to be on us, on our shoulders, so you’ll have to see,” Uzomah said.