With Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert recovering from ankle surgery and expected to miss three months, youngsters such as second-year players C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Kroft are benefiting from extra reps, many of which are coming with, and against, the starters.
“It helps tremendously because obviously I get a lot more exposure with Andy (Dalton) and the coaches,” Kroft said. “So as it progresses, obviously a lot more reps are building up and the coaches can trust what I’m doing.”
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Kroft, the team’s third-round pick last year, played in all 16 games last year with six starts as a rookie, but he primarily was used as a blocker, catching just 11 passes on 15 targets for 129 yards and one touchdown.
“I want to make as many plays as I can in the passing game,” Kroft said. “One of the things I always work on is hip flexibility, explosion, so I can get in and out of routes better and stay in my blocks better. I want to be a true three-down tight end – or a four-down tight end – and stay in the game as much as I can.”
Kroft played just 33 percent of the offensive snaps last year, although his usage increased dramatically in December, when he was in for 84 percent of the snaps.
And while performance played a big role in that increase, trust was every bit as important, which is why offensive coordinator Ken Zampese said eliminating mental errors is the biggest thing he wants to see from his group of young tight ends.
And it’s why tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes requires his guys to do 15 push-ups for every mental error and 10 for each dropped pass.
Uzomah, the team’s fifth-round pick last year, went to the ground for 10 push-ups after a missed pass Tuesday.
“That was a drop,” he said. “I felt like I should have caught it. If we miss them out on the field, we get them in film room, so we make sure we do them right there.”
The mental part has been the biggest challenge for Uzomah because as a rookie he had to learn one position. But in the absence of Eifert, who lined up all over the place, Uzomah is being asked to do a lot more.
“Just the mental aspect is what’s harder,” he said. “We’ll put in new plays and it’s like ‘You’ve been here before. You should know it,’” he said. “I should know it. Systematically I should know what to do. There’s no leeway. If you mess up, it’s like ‘you should know it. Come on.’”
The young group of tight ends also includes Matt Lengel, who was on the practice squad last year, and Lakota West High School grad John Peters, who was with the team through training camp and then re-signed in February.
“I’d sure like to have Eifert running around out here, but on the same note I sure like getting the reps for the younger guys so we can accelerate their process as well,” Zampese said. “Our backups are pretty good, and they’ll prove it here this spring and through training camp. I love their effort and their want-to and just how fast they play, their enthusiasm. All those things are positives for us.”
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