All season long the Cincinnati Bengals have been waiting for a second wide receiver to emerge. That receiver has not emerged yet, as each candidate has been struck by their own different ailments. Most significantly however, the Bengals were expecting their second wide receiver to be their third option for quarterback Andy Dalton, not their second as one would expect. Tight End Jermaine Gresham was expected to establish himself as a top tier player at his position this year.
Gresham was drafted 21st overall in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft. After an impressive college career at Oklahoma, he was expected to offer the Bengals a player who could significantly improve the run blocking and passing game as the starting tight end. To this point, that has not happened.
In his first two seasons, Gresham tallied 108 receptions, 10 touchdowns and 1,067 yards. Despite being a physically gifted tight end who is guaranteed a matchup advantage against the majority of linebackers and defensive backs, Gresham hasn’t yet established himself as a consistent receiving threat to this point. Gresham’s problem has been completely mental. His lack of focus at times has led to 14 dropped passes in his first two seasons and six already this year. Gresham has dropped four passes in the past three games, but did have his career high in receiving yards last week against the Denver Broncos.
On eight targets, Gresham caught six passes for 108 yards. Yet, it still felt like he was underused. The Bengals aren’t a team that is going to spread the ball around to different receivers the way the New Orleans Saints or Green Bay Packers do. The Bengals offense is much more rigid because it is limited by a lack of weapons.
While AJ Green should get the majority of targets, presuming the defense isn’t overplaying their coverage, Gresham proved in this game that he should be the one receiving the majority of the other targets. Dalton dropped back 42 times against the Broncos, seven more times than his season average, but still only targeted Gresham one more time than his season high.
Now if Gresham wasn’t effective, it would make sense not to target him. While he is prone to lapses in concentration that lead to incompletions, he also showed in this game that he can get free from defenders with ease or adjust to the football in the air to make receptions against tight coverage.
Gresham’s first reception of the day went for 15 yards when he beat a linebacker in single coverage across the field. As soon as he caught the pass, he absorbed a hit and held onto the football for a first down. Despite the very impressive play, Dalton didn’t look his way again until the middle of the second quarter.
In this game Gresham showed off an ability to make plays in many different ways. He caught one pass in the flat before sprinting down the sideline for a first down. Another came when he accurately gained enough yards over the middle for a first down. His 52 yard reception came on an extended play when he was in space, but he beat two defenders with his speed down the sideline for 30 more yards. Twice he extended fully over the middle to snatch the ball out of the air despite having a defender in close proximity.
For all the good, Gresham had one bad play when he ran a quick out route and watched the ball fly through his hands and hit him on the helmet. It was a bad play, but at worst it was an incompletion. Incompletions for Dalton this year haven’t been the problem, he is completing over 60 percent, but interceptions have been. If the Bengals focused more of their offense towards Gresham, instead of moving away from him for long stretches of football games, then Dalton would have easier attempts to a receiver capable of catching poorly thrown passes.
Dalton is at the point in the season when the Bengals need to make some adjustments to help him improve. Gresham’s career day against the Broncos implies that he is at least capable of helping him more, and he could be set to turn a corner in his career.