Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow is still awaiting his massive payday as negotiations on a contraction extension are ongoing, but he’s already helped a lot of other people get paid, and his tight ends are near the top of that list.
C.J. Uzomah turned a season and a half with Burrow into a three-year, $24 million contract with the Jets in 2022, topping his career earnings in his first seven seasons by 120%. The Bengals replaced Uzomah with Hayden Hurst, who parlayed a one-year, $3.5 million prove-it deal into a three-year, $21.8 million windfall with the Panthers in March.
Enter Irv Smith Jr. on an even more affordable one-year, $1.75 million contract.
Why the Joint Practice Will Be a Great Test for Irv Smith Jr.
Training camp was supposed to be fertile ground for establishing a connection between Burrow and his newest target. But Smith, who is no stranger to having injuries interrupt his progress since joining the league in 2019, has been the teammate most affected by the calf injury that has interrupted yet another offseason of preparation for Burrow, who already has thrown hundreds, if not thousands of passes to Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and Trenton Irwin.
Smith, meanwhile, is still hovering in double digits.
But it’s hardly hampering his understanding of the offense — or his role in it. Smith has been a frequent target of backup quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Jake Browning, and he’s turning most of his opportunities into big plays.
“Obviously, I wish he was out on the field right now, but getting those reps behind closed doors and having that communication has been key,” Smith said.
“Joe’s a stud in terms of what he does on the field, but off the field, how he carries himself and the communication, anything he sees in the film room or anything we’re out there doing on the field, he’s like another coach.”
And as impressed as head coach Zac Taylor has been with how Smith has looked in practice, it’s grasping the schemes and the concepts more than the grabbing of spirals that has been most appreciated.
“I would say one sentence to describe Irv is ‘super locked in,’” Taylor said. “This dude is focused, and that’s a credit to him. That’s a credit to (tight ends coach James Casey), to the tight end room as a whole as really just close-knit.
“They are all helping each other get better and bring guys up to speed, maybe some of the stuff we’ve done in the past. Irv’s attention to detail has been outstanding, exactly what we’re looking for, so he gets the chance to get the reps in our system. And then when Burrow comes back, they will have plenty of opportunity to gain that connection together.”
The next big opportunity for Smith comes Wednesday when the Bengals will hold a joint practice with the Green Bay Packers. After saying last month he would be open to playing starters in the preseason, Taylor has not indicated if any will see action Friday night. Even if Smith is among those who get a series or two, it’s not going to compare to the amount of reps he’ll get in a two-hour joint practice.
And it’s as much about quality as it is quantity.
The Packers allowed just 61 catches for 540 yards against tight ends last year. Only the Saints surrendered fewer (59 for 524).
Whether Burrow makes his post-injury debut at practice for the joint session remains to be seen. Still, whether the quarterback is watching in person or on film, Smith said he’s instilling belief regardless of who is throwing the passes.
“The coaches are starting to believe in me more and more, and I’m just trying to show on film that I can make plays,” Smith said. “Me making plays out here is just building the confidence for sure for him to know that he can count on me at any time.”