CINCINNATI -- One day earlier in training camp, Brandon Tate was sitting quietly at his locker when a reporter approached to break the silence around him.
The reporter had a philosophical question for the Cincinnati Bengals receiver and return specialist.
Do you think you can make this team?
It was one of the most-asked questions surrounding the Bengals this offseason, and it remains one of more intriguing sticking points now that preseason games have started. So, does Tate, a player used primarily on special teams and whose offensive production has been minimal his three years with the Bengals, believe he will be on the 53-man roster when camp breaks next month?
Of course he does.
"We've got a new O-coordinator and the one thing he stressed is that everything is open," Tate said, referring to lead offensive assistant Hue Jackson. "He doesn't want nobody to be comfortable."
It's safe to say the Bengals have made things uncomfortable for Tate during this camp. He's been doing his share of triple duty, catching passes, returning kicks and fielding punts. And he's been doing it all with a couple of other players performing just as well at each of those tasks. Coaches know the heat has risen around Tate, and they hope he continues to feel it.
"That's what you always try to create in training camp. You try to create competition," special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said. "Everybody should feel heat because there's always somebody right behind you nipping at your tail."
Tate's value has been called into question in recent months considering his comparative lack of versatility the last three years. He's caught only 14 passes since he joined the Bengals in 2011, despite appearing in all 51 regular-season and postseason games. It's a surprisingly low figure when one also considers that the year before Tate's arrival in Cincinnati, he caught 24 passes for New England.
Statistics like those have been viewed as justification for Tate's job to be considered in jeopardy. His only real value to the team has been in special teams where last season he averaged 26.1 yards per kick return and 9.3 yards per punt return. His kick-return average was the second-highest of his career and ranked sixth among league returners with 30 or more kick returns.
While Tate has proven valuable in his ability to field kickoffs and punts, his teammates backing him up at those positions also have proven their value on offense and defense, respectively, adding to their overall versatility. Cornerback Adam Jones, Tate's backup at punt returner, for instance, has been a key contributor defensively his entire time with the Bengals. He had 55 tackles and three interceptions last season, his highest single-season totals since 2006. He also has been the primary punt returner in recent years, but injuries in the secondary last season forced Tate to take his reps in order to keep the veteran corner fresh.
Along with Jones, receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, who is returning punts and kicks, has been slightly more valuable offensively. He had six receptions last season despite being declared inactive in six games. Tate, through all 16 games, caught only one pass.
What, then, has prevented Tate from being more of an offensive weapon?
"It's just always been, 'What is his role? What role does he fit?'" receivers coach James Urban said. "And for him, it's making the plays when the plays come his way. There's been quite a few plays he's made, and there would be some where he would tell you he didn't make the play. So it's just getting real comfortable with the offense and getting comfortable with what we're doing and finding a niche for him."
If there is a niche Tate has found it revolves around his leadership presence. At the ripe age of 26, he's the oldest player in the Bengals' receivers meeting room.
"Everyone thinks that he's like the old guy," Urban said, "and he's really not."
Tate may be young numerically, but his teammates view him as a grizzled sage.
"He has a keen eye for the game," Urban said. "From Day 1 that I had him, he's always talked to A.J. [Green] and all of the guys. They've got to go through whatever coaching point that he might make. He's great that way."
Urban believes Tate's approach to this camp has been great, too. He's been catching most passes thrown his way and continues performing on special teams. In last Thursday's preseason opener at Kansas City, he caught one pass -- a 9-yard touchdown reception -- and had a lone kick return for 25 yards. Regardless of whether the veteran is truly in a position battle or not, he has shown Urban that he's not going to glide through this camp.
"He's got a lot of fight this camp; there's no doubt about it," Urban said. "But I've always felt that way with him. Brandon is a proud man. So he knows if he has any sense of feeling that he's fighting for a job, then he's going to come out there every day and fight for his job."
The heat has been high on Tate this camp, and so far, the Bengals think he can take it.