CINCINNATI — One of the newest Cincinnati Bengals sat in front of a relatively empty locker, grinned and reflected on the opportunity ahead as the team started its offseason program.
Tight end Irv Smith Jr. had a couple of clothing items, a water bottle and a commemorative game ball in his new Cincinnati digs as he talked about the excitement of joining the defending AFC North champs.
“I just want to get out here and play,” Smith said. “I wish it was gameday today.”
When he signed a one-year contract with the team earlier in April, Smith became the latest player to potentially fill a key void as the Bengals’ starting tight end on one of the NFL’s most unique offenses. It also marked the second straight year the team opted for a short-term deal for someone who could be a starter, with Smith replacing Hayden Hurst, an outgoing free agent.
This year’s draft presents a couple of intriguing options for when the Bengals are on the clock. Utah’s Dalton Kincaid and Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer, who grew up in the Cincinnati area, are some tight ends who could be in the mix.
But Cincinnati’s transaction history and how they use the position raise questions about the sensibility of taking a tight end with that spot, especially with Smith currently penciled in as the starter.
“We think he can come in and play that role for us,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Monday. “There is always competition in that room. But that’s the vision that we have for Irv is to come in and fit that role Hayden had for us.”
Before signing with the Bengals, Smith spent four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. He started in one of his eight appearances in 2022 and finished the year on injured reserve. His backstory has parallels to the player he’s replacing.
Hurst, a 2018 first-round pick, came to the Bengals on a one-year contract after previous stints with the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons didn’t pan out. In his introductory news conference in 2022, Hurst made it very clear that he wanted to prove he could be a contributor for an NFL team.
After one season with the Bengals, Hurst netted a three-year contract with the Carolina Panthers worth nearly $22 million, including $13 million in guaranteed money.
It was the second consecutive solid payday for a Cincinnati tight end. After the 2021 season, C.J. Uzomah signed a three-year deal with the New York Jets worth $24 million. That deal guaranteed $15 million. To put those contracts into the proper context, Hurst earned a mere $3.5 million in his time in Cincinnati.
The long-term outlook for Cincinnati’s tight end spot is still uncertain. Drew Sample, a 2019 second-round pick, re-signed on a one-year deal. Like Smith, Sample said the possibility of the team drafting a young player didn’t come up during negotiations.
“They wanted me back. I wanted to be back here,” said Sample, who is coming off a right knee injury that ended his 2022 season on Week 2. “Obviously, the injury thing was something they had to work through. But for me, knowing the offense, knowing what we’ve been doing as a team, all that, it was what we wanted.”
Even if Kincaid or Mayer are available for the Bengals with the 28th pick, Cincinnati could be better suited adding a player who could have a greater impact on the team’s passing game, which is the backbone of the offense. Uzomah and Hurst ranked fourth on the team in targets per game in the 2021 and 2022 seasons, respectively.
Smith, who will make $1.75 million in 2023, according to Roster Management System, joins a high-powered offense that features wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. The trio accounted for 55% of the team’s total targets last season.
Smith said the Bengals brought him into town for a reason, and he’s looking forward to playing with quarterback Joe Burrow, who is coming off his best pro season.
“It definitely factored into my decision,” Smith said. “Joe, he’s arguably the best, if not one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. And he’s young as well. He has a lot of talent.”
Smith, Sample and Devin Asiasi are the tight ends Burrow will have at his disposal for next season. The Bengals will be looking to boost a roster that lost in the AFC Championship Game.
If the Bengals decide to draft a tight end, Sample said it’d be a welcome addition.
“That’d be great,” Sample said. “And if not, we feel like we have the confidence to be a really great room with what we have and what we can do in this offense.”