The first completion on the Bengals‘ first scoring drive during last Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh wasn’t thrown to Tee Higgins, Cincinnati’s 1,000-yard receiver. It also wasn’t thrown to former Pro Bowl wideout Tyler Boyd. Instead, Joe Burrow found tight end Hayden Hurst, who beat man coverage before pulling down Burrow’s pass, rumbling inside Steelers territory. 

Hurst found himself on the receiving end on a key third-down conversation on the Bengals’ ensuring drive, which ended with Cincinnati’s first touchdown in a 37-30 win. Hurst didn’t catch another pass after that, but his contributions helped the Bengals win their first game this season over an AFC North opponent. 

“It’s huge,” Hurst told CBS Sports when asked about the significance of Sunday’s win. “We need to start stacking wins, especially this time of year.” 

Hurst has been an ideal fit for the Bengals, who signed him to a one-year deal this past offseason. Through 10 games, the 2018 first-round pick has caught 40 passes and is on pace to set career season highs in catches and receiving yards. He already has 14 more receptions than he did last season, his second and final year with the Falcons

A former standout at South Carolina, Hurst was drafted six spots ahead of Lamar Jackson in the 2018 draft. Playing behind Nick Boyle and fellow draft classmate Mark Andrews, Hurst played sparingly as a backup as a rookie before making a bigger impact in 2019. His play that season helped Jackson win league MVP honors while also contributing to Baltimore going 14-2 during the regular season. 

Despite his success, the Ravens deemed him expendable. They traded Hurst to Atlanta for two draft picks in the 2020 offseason. A year later, despite having a successful first season with the Falcons (Hurst caught a career-high six touchdowns that season), Atlanta declined to pick up his fifth-year option, then used the fourth overall pick in the draft to select Kyle Pitts, his eventual replacement. 

These prior experiences undoubtedly contribute to Hurst’s unbridled emotion when asked about how it feels to finally be on a team that values him. 

“It feels absolutely f—ing incredible,” Hurst said from the visiting locker room inside Acrisure Stadium. 

Hurst’s arrival in Cincinnati came after the team parted with C.J. Uzomah, a popular and productive player who played a key role in the Bengals winning the AFC last year. Despite Uzomah’s departure, the Bengals haven’t lost anything from that position as far as production and playmaking ability is concerned. 

“When Hayden has been that guy that’s gotten the ball, he’s made the most of his opportunities,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said last month, via ESPN

Hurst has often said that statistics don’t matter to him. Playing his role in helping teams have success is what drives the 29-year-old veteran. Hurst has done that in spades during his first year in Cincinnati. While he is not the Bengals’ primary weapon, his presence has provided Burrow with another reliable option. Hurst has helped open things up for the Bengals’ other playmakers, a group that includes Higgins, Boyd, running back Joe Mixon and reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Ja’Marr Chase

Cincinnati’s surprise Super Bowl run belied the fact that the team had several areas that needed improved this offseason. The Bengals aggressively attacked those weaknesses. They acquired four new starters on the offensive line with three of those starters coming via free agency. They spent their first three draft picks on the secondary after giving up a touchdown in the last two minutes of Super Bowl LVI. And while it didn’t receive as much fanfare at the time, the team’s acquisition of Hurst has also proven to be a significant transaction that will likely continue to pay dividends during the season’s second half. 

“We’ve got special players in this room, man,” Hurst said. “We try to all get on the same page, really understand this offense. We go out there and try to attack defense. 

“We know how talented we are.” 

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