Most people who don’t follow the Cincinnati Bengals closely couldn’t tell you the first thing about tight end C.J. Uzomah. Bengals fans, however, should be quite familiar with him. Uzomah has been with the team since 2015, often shouldering a significant amount of the team’s TE snaps thanks to the oft-injured Tyler Eifert.
In recent years, Uzomah has overtaken Eifert on the depth chart, although the latter TE has generally received more targets when he was available. However, with Eifert’s departure during the offseason, Uzomah is now convincingly the number one TE in Cincinnati. And that is precisely why we are talking about him today.
As you might have heard, the Bengals selected quarterback Joe Burrow with the first overall pick in the most recent NFL Draft. Quarterbacks, especially young quarterbacks, need reliable targets in order to be successful. I’ve already talked about the Bengals wide receivers, but TEs are often just as crucial to the passing game in the modern NFL. It is therefore worth taking a look at his recent performances for Cincinnati, to see if he can be a consistent receiving threat for their offense in 2020.
According to the OSM, Uzomah was highly efficient in 2019
In terms of his box score statistics, Uzomah wasn’t particularly productive last season, managing just 242 yards and two touchdowns. However, as I already mentioned, he spent most of his time playing second fiddle to Eifert in the receiving department. As such, it isn’t entirely fair to blame Uzomah for those struggles.
In situations like this one, where a player’s box score statistics are negatively impacted by factors outside of their control, PFN’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM) is a useful tool for helping us evaluate that player’s performances. It calculates a player’s actual value to their team by using advanced statistics. In Uzomah’s case, his OSM grades were higher than most people might expect, particularly when compared to other TEs.
For most of 2019, Uzomah didn’t receive enough targets to qualify for a grade. However, on the four occasions that he did so, he performed exceptionally well. The chart will help illustrate this point. Uzomah’s OSM grades from each of those four weeks are marked with a black dot, and, for comparison, the average overall OSM grade for tight ends in 2019 is marked by the yellow line.
Three of those four weekly grades were above the league average, and each of them ranked inside the top four among qualifying tight ends during their respective weeks. In other words, in three of the four games in which he saw a significant number of targets, Uzomah performed at the efficiency level of an elite TE, providing a great deal of value to his offense.
Explaining how Uzomah’s TE OSM grade for 2019 was calculated
Uzomah’s 2019 grades depended primarily on two statistics: the amount of separation he created and his catch percentage. The chart below contains Uzomah’s performance on each category in each of the four weeks, as well as where they ranked compared to other TEs that week.
|Week 1||4.5||TE03||80||Tied for TE06|
|Week 11||3.8||TE02||40||Tied for TE14 (last)|
|Week 13||4.5||TE02||83.33||Tied for TE03|
|Week 17||2.9||Tied for TE08||83.33||Tied for TE03|
Looking at this data, you can easily see why three of his grades were so high. He ranked inside the top ten in the amount of separation he created in all four weeks, and his catch percentage was above 80% in three of the four. It is understandable that Uzomah performed well on both of these metrics since players that are more open will generally have an easier time catching the ball.
The data also tells us where the differences in Uzomah’s grades come from. His slightly lower grade in Week 17 was the result of a similarly slight decrease in separation. Meanwhile, an abysmal catch percentage of 40% caused the precipitous drop in his Week 11 grade.
Comparing Uzomah’s TE grades from 2019 and 2018
Despite low box score statistics, the data shows us that Uzomah accrued those statistics in a highly efficient manner last season. However, we are admittedly dealing with a relatively low sample size. So it is worth looking slightly further back to 2018, when he saw significantly more targets, to see if Uzomah’s level of play changed between seasons.
It doesn’t take much investigation to discover that 2018 was far less impressive from Uzomah than the year that followed. His overall grade of 34.75 ranked 21st that season, lower than all but one of his individual grades from 2019. As you would expect, his performance on the statistics that make up that grade were far worse than in 2019 as well. His catch percentage of 67.19% was far lower than most of his performances from 2019, and his average separation of 2.8 yards was similarly unimpressive.
His chart from 2018, which you can see below, makes him look even worse, showing him to not only be a below-average performer but an inconsistent one as well.
In each week, his grade was either approximately at the average, or far below it. His best performance among them would have only ranked third if compared to 2019, lower than the second-best by almost five points. On the whole, his play in 2018 was highly inconsistent, with low highs and lower lows.
Uzomah’s dramatically different performances in 2018 and 2019 will paint an interesting picture for 2020
Uzomah’s increase in efficiency from last season seems promising on the surface. Being a more effective, valuable player is, in a vacuum, a good thing. However, there is a major caveat: Uzomah’s role as a pass-catcher decreased significantly from 2018 to 2019. It is possible that his increase in efficiency between those seasons was not a coincidence, and was in fact the direct result of a more limited receiving role. That might cause problems next season because, with Eifert finally off the team officially, Uzomah might end up seeing an increase in targets once again.
If he continues to play at the same level that he did in 2019, that won’t be a problem; he might even be regarded as a breakout player when the season is over. However, if Uzomah can’t handle the increased workload and reverts back to his 2018 level of play, Cincinnati might find themselves with a hole in their offense at TE. That is not a situation you want to find yourselves in during your franchise quarterback’s debut season. Hopefully, Uzomah avoids that scenario entirely by maintaining his momentum from 2019 and helping Burrow become the player that the Bengals need him to be.
Lucas Ellinas is a writer for Pro Football Network. You can follow him on Twitter @Lucas_Ellinas.