With last year's drafting of Tyler Eifert in the first round of the NFL draft, the Cincinnati Bengals seemingly secured their tight end corps, even if only for a couple of seasons.
Then, Eifert underachieved, Jermaine Gresham had his worst season to date and the offense seemed to be in a bit of disarray because of it. Eifert appeared to be a fantastic selection at the beginning of the season—through the first five weeks of the season, he reeled in 17 passes and twice caught five passes in a game.
He never topped three catches in a game after that, caught only one ball in a game three times and was not ever targeted during the team's playoff loss to the San Diego Chargers. Gresham's line doesn't look much better, as he set career lows in receptions (46) and yards (458) and tied a career low in touchdowns (4).
To top it off, Eifert is struggling with a shoulder injury and, as reported by Jason Marcum on CincyJungle.com, Gresham underwent hernia surgery this offseason. According to CBS Sports, he's expected to be ready for training camp but remains questionable.
After these two, that leaves Alex Smith, who was re-signed following the reports of Gresham's surgery, Kevin Brock and UDFA Ryan Hewitt.
Smith saw mild success as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer from 2005-2008 but has mostly been a filler for Philadelphia, Cleveland and now Cincinnati. Still, with his past experience, he is capable of stepping in if it should come down to it.
He played fullback in college, and managed to make a splash in the passing game, even coming out of the backfield. Granted, that came during the 2011 season when Andrew Luck was throwing the ball to him. He caught 34 balls and scored five times that season.
So, amidst all of this turmoil circulating around the tight ends, the most interesting thing about the coming season should be the contract of Jermaine Gresham. He's due to make $3,410,750, per Spotrac.com, as a base salary this season and is also in a contract season. His rookie deal expires in 2015.
After his season last year, it would be foolish for Cincinnati to re-sign him, especially after the season he's had.
In a make-or-break season, you have to wonder what Gresham is going to do under so much pressure. He's got the young Eifert waiting in the wings and maybe even Hewitt or Brock if they impress.
What seems to be best, assuming everyone is healthy at the start of the season, would be to let Gresham and Eifert remain in their current spots. Of course, that part is obvious. Past that, it would be interesting to see one of the young guys be the No. 3 tight end, as opposed to Smith.
No offense to the veteran, but with Gresham's future so uncertain, it wouldn't hurt to keep younger guys around who can develop in Hue Jackson's system. Odds are the tight ends will get plenty of work this season as blockers since Jackson is quite the fan of the running game.
Don't sleep on Hewitt—he's got good hands and is a pretty strong guy. With some time on the practice squad, he may be able to develop into a very good tight end.
I wouldn't expect to see a Gronkowski-Hernandez-caliber duo, but with this season being so big for Gresham, it's safe to think their numbers will go up.