State of the Cincinnati Bengals – Here They Go Again at Tight End

For the second year in a row, the Cincinnati Bengals head into an offseason with no tight ends under contract. So what's next in 2024?

CINCINNATI — For the second year in a row, the Cincinnati Bengals are going into an offseason with no tight ends under contract.

And for the second year in a row, their plan cannot be the same.

Yes, re-signing the majority of the tight ends scheduled to hit free agency would be a good start again, but the Bengals can’t afford to top their strategy with a wing and a prayer on the cheap the way they did with Irv Smith Jr. last March.

State of the Bengals Franchise | Tight End

The signing of Smith seemed as though it would be a precursor to another acquisition in the draft, but despite one of the most talented tight end classes in years, the Bengals elected not to take one.

And Smith managed to stay mostly healthy for the first time in his career, he never materialized into any sort of threat in the Cincinnati offense, finishing with 18 catches for 115 yards and a touchdown in 12 games.

Smith appeared in 12 of the first 14 games before being a healthy scratch in Weeks 16 and 18 and a non-participant despite dressing in Week 17.

As we continue our look at the state of each position group heading into the offseason, tight end is a position group with both promise and yet a clear need.

Previous Position Breakdowns

Let’s take a look at each tight end on the 2023 roster and what to expect in 2024, followed by an overall assessment of the group and where it could be headed.

Tanner Hudson (Unrestricted Free Agent)

The No. 1 benefactor from Smith’s struggles, Tanner Hudson was promoted from the practice squad on Nov. 1, three days after Smith lost a fumble inside the San Francisco five-yard line just before halftime.

Hudson appeared in two games earlier in the season as a standard elevation, but he really took off once he joined the 53-man roster and took most of Smith’s snaps from Week 9 on. Hudson not only finished with season highs in every category, but he surpassed his entire career production in each one with 39 catches for 352 yards and a touchdown.

In his four previous seasons, Hudson had 15 catches for 199 yards and no touchdowns.

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Hudson has work to do as a blocker, but he’s the third tight end in a row to have a career year playing with Joe Burrow, and the production could be even higher in 2024 with a full season of reps.

Chance of return: 90%

Drew Sample (Unrestricted Free Agent)

Drew Sample didn’t put up career numbers the way Hudson did — although his two touchdowns topped his previous career total of one — but there is no question he played better than he ever has in his five seasons with the team.

The 2019 second-round pick took on a new role by lining up in the backfield on third downs after the Bengals couldn’t find a running back to consistently handle the duties. And while Sample didn’t have huge numbers as a receiver, his 22 catches and 163 yards were the second-highest totals of his career.

And he showed the ability to make an occasional defender miss to gain some yards after catch and first downs. His 173 YAC was just shy of his career high of 198 in 2020 when he had nearly twice as many receptions (40).

The downside to the uptick in production is that there could be more suitors than last year when Sample was coming from a knee injury and the Bengals were able to re-sign him for $1.2 million.

Chance of return: 85%

Mitch Wilcox (Unrestricted Free Agent)

Not as good of a receiver as Hudson or as good of a blocker as Sample, Mitch Wilcox still played a key role for the Bengals, leading the team in special teams snaps.

The Bengals will have interest in bringing him back, but he likely will have to battle a rookie or two in training camp for a spot on the 53-man roster.

Chance of return: 80%

Irv Smith Jr. (Unrestricted Free Agent)

The Bengals rolled the dice and crapped out. Time to move on.

Chance of return: 0.5%

What’s Next?

From the moment the Bengals walked away from the draft until the start of the season, everyone from director of player personnel Duke Tobin to head coach Zac Taylor to offensive coordinator Brian Callahan expressed their faith in the trio of Hudson, Sample, and Wilcox. That was rewarded as all three had arguably the best years of their career.

But that is no reason to run it back. The Bengals need a longer-term answer at tight end, someone the defense has to account for and not just dismiss as a check-down option.

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The top free agent on the market will be Dalton Schultz, but it’s hard to imagine the Bengals paying in the range of $10 million per year for a position they have proven they do not value that way. Former Denver Broncos first-round pick Noah Fant fits in that bucket as well.

Hunter Henry should only cost about half as much, but he’ll turn 30 next season.

Bengals coaches and players consistently rave about the job James Casey does as tight ends coach. They should trust that assessment and give Casey a mid-round rookie draft pick to mold.

The problem may be that the Bengals waited too long. This year’s class isn’t great beyond likely top-15 pick Brock Bowers.

However, the Bengals don’t need a tight end to carry the offense. They just need one to carry a real threat — in 2024 and beyond.

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