Our series of Cincinnati Bengals training camp previews continues with a look at the crowded wide receiver position;
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The secret is out: A.J. Green is really good.
With 65 catches for 1,057 yards and 7 touchdowns in his rookie season, Green introduced himself to the AFC North and to the league as a whole as a player to watch for years to come.
Opposing defenses are among the group that’s watching. By the time the Bengals lost in Houston in an AFC Wildcard game last January, the Texans were double-teaming Green on nearly every play. Often times, a third defender was in the area.
The Bengals know that’s going to continue, and while they believe in Green’s talent and his ability to outleap and outhustle multiple defenders, Andy Dalton will need to make defenses pay for paying too much attention to Green. It looks like Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham (56 catches last year) will be Pro Bowl regulars over the next several seasons, but the Bengals want to spread the wealth and need to develop at least one more reliable receiving option for the offense to reach its full potential.
Speaking of potential, there’s a chance this is a deep and talented group of receivers. It’s almost a totally unproven group outside of Green, but offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said in June that he didn’t think the team needed to look outside for a veteran receiver. He likes the group he has.
The Bengals let Jerome Simpson (50 catches, several big plays, lots of off-field baggage) and Andre Caldwell (37 catches) leave via free agency and invested a third-round pick in Mohamed Sanu and a fifth-rounder in Marvin Jones. Besides Green, though, the rest of the group has been built with little investment. Brandon Tate and Andrew Hawkins were scrap-heap pickups, Armon Binns is a practice-squad project, Ryan Whalen a 2011 sixth-rounder. Jordan Shipley, a third-round pick in 2010, looks to bounce back from two injury-shortened seasons and suddenly might be fighting an uphill battle to win a job.
Don’t totally rule out Vidal Hazelton, another practice-squad project, or 5’9 undrafted rookie Kashif Moore, either. Moore will have to maximize his chances in camp, but he’s slippery and has enough speed to get behind the defense.
A further look at the wide receiver battle…
ROLE PLAYING: Green is the No. 1 and looks like a rising superstar. Every other job appears open for the taking. Through the spring, Tate and Binns usually got first crack alongside or opposite Green. Sanu and Jones are learning and are guaranteed nothing, but both have talent and immediate opportunity. Hawkins had a slot role (and 23 catches) last year, Shipley has been cleared in his return from knee surgery and Whalen again looks to stick. Only the first few weeks of camp will reveal if the coaches have an early pecking order in mind or if they plan to give everybody opportunities and let it play out from there.
UNCOVERING A GEM?: Who’s the big guy with the long, fluid strides wearing No. 85? There are no TV cameras following him, so we know it’s not Chad Johnson/Ochocinco. It’s Binns (6’3, 210), who put together a strong spring after spending most of last season on the Bengals practice squad. He was called up to the active roster late in the year but didn’t see much game action. He caught just about everything thrown his way in minicamp and OTAs, and he’s put himself in position to make a leap this season. Binns has a whole lot of proving to do, but it appears he’ll get his chance to do it over the next several weeks.
MORE NEW FACES: Tate spent all of last season with the Bengals after being claimed from New England, but he was used mostly in the kick return game and didn’t have a catch. He has the speed to get deep and his increased comfort level with his surroundings gives him a chance to be an impact receiver. Sanu didn’t appear as explosive as most of the rest of the group during spring work, and he’s going to have to get used to press coverage in the NFL. But the Bengals see him as sure-handed chain mover, and if he can get free underneath he’ll have a chance to make his share of plays. Jones looks like he could be a big-play guy on the outside, but he’ll have to earn his opportunities starting later this month.
FINAL COUNT: In most years the Bengals keep five receivers on the final 53-man roster, but there are lots of reasons to think six will make it from this group. Tate, Hawkins and Jones have return game ability. Binns has to prove himself against top competition but his spring work and progression have impressed and excited the coaching staff. Sanu will make the team even if he’s not ready for an immediate role — but he might be by late August. If everybody stays healthy, it’s possible a team like the Dolphins or Bills will come calling about a possible trade. Because even the most casual observer can see wide receivers at work, this shapes up as the most fun battle in Bengals camp.