Cincinnati Bengals TE Hayden Hurst eager to face old club Atlanta Falcons

CINCINNATI -- Bengals tight end Hayden Hurst has had Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons circled for a while.

Hurst spent the previous two years with the Falcons before signing a one-year deal worth $3.5 million with the Bengals in the offseason. The former first-round draft pick contrasted the lack of playing time in Atlanta with his current role with the Bengals.

"I know what I'm capable of doing," Hurst told ESPN. "I just didn't think I got to show everything in Atlanta. That's why it's kind of been fun coming here and creating chemistry with Joe [Burrow] and all these guys. Having the coaches believe in me, it's been cool."

The Bengals (3-3) signed Hurst after former starting tight end C.J. Uzomah signed with the New York Jets in the offseason. Hurst has already exceeded the total number of targets (31) he had with the Falcons last season (30) despite playing seven fewer games.

When asked if there's anything he wished went differently in Atlanta, Hurst had a one-word answer: "Play." In 2021, the Falcons drafted Florida's Kyle Pitts with the fourth overall pick, making him the top tight end on the roster. The rookie led the team in targets, receptions and receiving yards.

"It's never been from like a selfish place where it's like, 'I think I deserve 80 catches and a thousand yards,'" Hurst told ESPN on Thursday. "I know my abilities can help a team win so I've always wanted to contribute. I just haven't had that opportunity until I got here."

In the offseason, Hurst went to Destin, Florida, for a few days to work with Burrow, the team's starting quarterback. He wanted to get an understanding of Burrow's expectations and his work ethic. "It really just set me in motion with getting my s--- straight and figuring out what I need to do to help him," Hurst said. "I think we're starting to get there."

Burrow has leaned on Hurst in several key situations. Six of Hurst's 31 catches this season have come on third downs. One of them was a late touchdown on Week 4 against the Miami Dolphins that sealed a 27-15 win.

The rapport with Burrow and the value Hurst brings to the Bengals was on display one week later against the Baltimore Ravens. Bengals coach Zac Taylor called a catch Hurst made on a back-shoulder throw against Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters "tremendous." Taylor said for a quarterback to take that matchup is rare, but it showed the confidence Burrow had in Hurst to make the play.

"When Hayden has been that guy that's gotten the ball, he's made the most of his opportunities," Taylor said Oct. 10.

One of Hurst's two touchdowns this season came against the Ravens, the team that drafted him in 2016 before trading him to the Falcons after two seasons. Hurst said given the history with Baltimore, that touchdown was a "cool feeling." The former South Carolina standout said scoring against the Falcons would be satisfying as he tries to help his new club go back over the .500 mark.

"Going out there and doing my job, helping us win, putting us in a good position and just making plays," Hurst said. "That's all I want to do."