Drew Sample is one of the great unknowns on the Bengals entering 2020.
Cincinnati took him with the 52nd pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. His rookie campaign was less than stellar. He finished with five catches for 30 yards in nine games. Pro Football Focus gave Sample a 55.9 grade for his performance last season.
The Washington product wasn’t utilized often in the Huskies’ passing game. He had 25 receptions as a senior, averaging 10.1 yards per catch. Sample excelled as a run blocker. He was the first ranked tight end as a run blocker according to PFF. Unfortunately for Bengals fans, not much of that transferred over to 2019.
Sample’s rookie season ended when the Bengals placed him on injured reserve in December. Over the past 17 years, two rookie tight ends have produced more than 600 yards receiving. Evan Engram of the Giants totaled 722 yards receiving in 2017 and John Carlson notched 627 with the Seahawks in 2008. Mike Ditka is the only rookie in NFL history to finish with 900 or more receiving yards and eight or more touchdowns.
“In my 12 years now there’s been a handful of rookies that have come in and been productive,” Greg Olsen told ESPN in 2018. "You don’t see the production level early at the tight-end position that you do at wide receiver or running back or even the offensive line. I don’t know why.”
The tight end position relies on experience and knowledge. Coaches often expect their tight ends to know as much as the quarterback. They have to know all of the blocking schemes and every combination in the route tree.
It’s why most rookies don't start in their first season.
Year two is a completely different story. TJ Hernandez broke down second-year tight end fantasy production from 2005-2015. He found 41 second-year tight ends have played in at least ten games. Twenty-seven of them finished the season as at least low-end streaming options.
Twenty-two second-year tight ends that played 10 or more games ended the season as streaming options, 12 were baseline fantasy starters, and five finished with elite production.
Over half of the sophomore tight ends that saw meaningful snaps from 2005-2015 went on to post decent production, while 29 percent of those players turned into top-12 fantasy options.
Sample did miss the back half of 2019 but he's fully healthy for 2020. His experience from last season, along with Joe Burrow at quarterback, puts Sample in a position to succeed this season.
Thaddeus Moss is well known because he’s the son of NFL legend Randy Moss. He was a strong receiving option in LSU’s record-setting offense in 2019. Burrow-to-Moss was arguably the best quarterback-tight end combination in LSU history. Moss set single-season records for receptions (47) and receiving yards (570 yards) by a tight end.
Burrow often found Moss in soft coverage areas on underneath routes. Moss had an uncanny ability to leak out upfield late in pass plays to make life easier on his quarterback. The stats say a lot when it comes to the Burrow-Moss connection, but when you watched the LSU offense last season, it was clear how much Burrow relied on his tight ends.
That's the formula for unlocking Sample and justifying his second-round selection. He needs to use his year of experience and build a similar rapport with Burrow. He can be one of the safety valves in the Bengals’ offense. He could easily be the fourth or fifth option with Tyler Eifert no longer in town.
Sample has been set up for success in 2020. It’s up to him to take advantage of it and shed the ‘bust’ label that many prematurely gave him on draft day.