When we took a fan poll here on Cincy Jungle back in December asking whether or not you all were comfortable heading into next season with Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell, and Jordan Shipley as the starting wideouts in 2011, only 18% definitely felt it was necessary to draft a big time WR. Well, it's happened all the same. And while Jay Gruden may feel like his "just got up on Christmas and opened up [his] favorite present" with the selection of wide receiver A. J. Green, I wonder if Caldwell feels as though he just saw mommy kissing Santa Claus.
When the Bengals selected Caldwell out of Florida in the late third round 2008 draft, many felt they got a guy that might surpass their second round gamble Jerome Simpson. Analysts labeled Caldwell as being more NFL ready and a possible #2 receiver. While he didn't make much of an impression that 2008 season (missing some time with a stress fracture in his foot), the following year Caldwell came on to pick up some of the slack from T. J. Houshmandzadeh's free agency departure. While he was a bit inconsistent at times, his 51 catches for 432 yards and 3 TDs showed he had the potential to be, if not a #2 guy, at least a productive slot receiver.
Then the team drafted slot-extraordinaire Shipley and signed Terrell Owens (and briefly Antonio Bryant, remember him?) and Caldwell virtually disappeared for most of last season. In the first 13 games, Caldwell had only 10 catches for 75 yards, failing to record a catch in eight games. He also fumbled a punt. Then, of course, with injuries to Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, Caldwell was tagged as a starter and closed out the last three games of the season with some eye-catching numbers (4 for 89, 4 for 87, 7 for 94). This is when we all started talking about the re-emergence of Andre Caldwell and the potential of a youth movement at WR, with Simpson and Caldwell as a means of luring Carson Palmer out of seclusion and back to QB-ing the team.
Caldwell has also has taken a renewed interest in himself. Last month Caldwell vowed to have a career year, saying to Bengals fans: "Let everybody know up there [...] I'm ready. I'm ready to come in and have my best year. I trained like I was going to the combine all over again and I'm going to keep going."
Not too long ago, we suggested here that it was a make or break year for Jerome Simpson, particularly because he'll be a free agent next year. It's just as importantly a make or break year for Caldwell, whose contract is also up after 2011. Caldwell is hoping to build on his performance in those final games from last season, and he thinks new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's system will enable him to do that.
Caldwell wants to keep a major role in the offense, which is switching to a West Coast scheme in 2011, and he believes he fits the new attack well. noting that he believes Jay Gruden's offense is designed to "get the ball in a player's hands, let them make plays."
"I think it works in my favor," Caldwell said of the new offense
But where, exactly, will Caldwell figure into the team's future plans? Recently coach Marvin Lewis suggested Simpson has the potential to be a #1 receiver. If something has truly clicked with Simpson, then this season's WR hierarchy probably looks like this: Green, Simpson, Shipley, Gresham, Caldwell, Warm Body. I'm not sure the team trusts him enough to handle return duties again, so will Caldwell have anything more than a situational role this season? Assuming health and productivity from those top four, does Caldwell get buried again in the depth chart like he did at the start of last season and then let go? Green may have sealed Ochocinco's fate, but has he also sealed Caldwell's fate as well?
Caldwell's a good insurance policy against injury and a possible Simpson degeneration, but this may likely be his last year in stripes.