Bengals 2012 Training Camp Position Preview: Wide Receivers Pt. I

May 22, 2012; Cincinnati, OH USA; Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (18) during organized team activities at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-US PRESSWIRE

There are twelve wide receivers on the Bengals' current 85-man roster, which is more than any other position. Other than A.J. Green starting on day 1, nothing else is settled with this group. There will be a very interesting battle for the remaining five (or so) spots, and Marvin Lewis will have to make some very tough decisions about who to keep. The bottom line is that whoever the Bengals cut will be making contributions on another team somewhere- the list of receivers is that deep. Covered in part one of this preview (I treated this article more as an 'everything you need to know') are the tall guys - A.J. Green, Armon Binns, Marvin Jones, Vidal Hazelton, Justin Hilton, and Mohamed Sanu.

A.J. Green is one of the best receivers in the league. Period. Armon Binns was very productive with the UC Bearcats, but wasn't drafted and has emerged out of nowhere as a front runner in the battle to start opposite Green. Marvin Jones was viewed as a late round wide receiver talent, but he impressed the hell out of everyone at this year's Senior Bowl, and he eventually slipped to the Bengals in the fifth round. Vidal Hazelton was considered the second best high school wide receiver in the country in 2006, committing to USC, but a tumultuous and injury filled college career forced him to fall undrafted. Justin Hilton, was not highly recruited, but his success in junior college and at Indiana State make him a very intriguing, but raw, wide receiver prospect. Finally, Mohamed Sanu did it all at Rutgers, where he was the team MVP and caught an astonishing 115 catches in his senior season.

A.J. Green

2011 Stats Targets Receptions Yards Yards/Rec Touchdowns INT (while thrown to) QB Rating (while thrown to)
111 65 1057 16.3 7 4 96.6

We all know who A.J. Green is by now, and how good he is. He made the Pro Bowl easily, and his skillset isn't far behind Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, widely considered to be the best receivers in the league.

I could gush about him forever, but I'll try to keep this section short, so we can move on to the younger guys that people haven't heard about.

As a rookie, Green was one of the best deep threats in the league last year. He has the speed to take the top of a defense, and the 'that ball is mine' mindset to bring down just about everything in a catchable radius. He is elite at catching all types of passes. His incredible hands, body control, and ability to catch the ball at the highest point ensure that he wins almost every 50-50 battle with defensive backs.

He is 6'4", but he has the agility and quickness of a receiver who is 5'10'. Because of this, he can line up anywhere on the field and run any type of route. His name will be the first word every opposing defensive coordinator says to his team this year. He's just that good.

He's also a hard worker, a leader, he's never been arrested, and he's very humble.

As far as weaknesses go, he sometimes struggled with getting separation from defenders last year, but his ball skills helped overcome this. His route running needs work, but that is the type of thing that will be fixed with time and repetition. At 207 pounds, he has a very lean frame, which doesn't give him much leverage when he blocks, or to get off jams at the line of scrimmage. He struggled with jams at times in 2011, but he still blew by a lot defensive backs anyway. As he continues to learn and refine his technique, this will only improve. Lastly, he led the league in penalties for wide receivers, with ten. Learning to line up properly and understanding what type of contact he can get away with in the NFL will help reduce this, but it's not a major problem either.

In 2012, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden must figure out how to creatively involve Green in the offense. Defenses will put their best corner on Green, and probably shade a safety behind him on almost every play. Fortunately, Green has the versatility to run short, intermediate, and deep routes, as well as crossing routes, sideline routes, and end-arounds. With so much focus on Green, Jermaine Gresham and whichever receivers are on the field better be able to beat the lighter coverage they face. [I guess I failed at keeping this part short].

2012 Projection: 130 targets, 75 receptions, 1200 yards, 16.0 yards/reception, 9 touchdowns

Armon Binns

2011 Stats Targets Receptions Yards Yards/Rec Touchdowns INT QB Rating
(practice squad player) 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Armon Binns made a name for himself with the University of Cincinnati Bearcats in his junior and senior seasons. He posted 75 receptions, 1101 yards, and 10 touchdowns in his senior year, leading the entire Big East in receptions and reception yards. He also recorded 61 catches, 888 yards, and 11 touchdowns as a junior.

As a 6'3" receiver who was productive in college, it begs the question- why wasn't Binns drafted? An excuse exists for shorter slot receivers like Victor Cruz and Wes Welker to be missed in the scouting process, because tall receivers generally get put under a much harsher magnifying glass by scouts. Finding a tall, undrafted or late round guy like Marques Coltson (6'4", 7th round) and turning him into a successful player is exceedingly rare, as our own Joe Goodberry pointed out in this article.

The scouting reports [1] [2] [3] [4] generally said that Binns lacked great acceleration, couldn't get much separation, and wasn't very explosive. They said that his strength and releases off the line of scrimmage were a major concern. His biggest strength was his reliable, soft hands. He played physically, and had a great feel for the ball while it was in the air. He could make tough catches, and was particularly adept at working inside the numbers, where game-breaking speed isn't as important. He was projected as a 6th or 7th round receiver, who could make a name for himself as a reliable possession receiver.

It's hard to figure out what exactly happened when Binns was with the Jaguars last year (where the receiving corps was one of the worst in the NFL, and Binns didn't make the final roster). But, Binns made the most of his opportunity with the Bengals, where he lit up the practice squad after being signed to it on September 20. Binns was asked to emulate Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Wallace, and other top receivers while on the scout team, and he was so damn good at it, that Bengals coaches wanted Binns promoted to the real roster, and possibly even starting. But that never happened, and the Bengals chose to stick with just Green, Simpson, Hawkins, and Whalen.

Looking forward, I really, really like what I've seen out of Binns in OTAs so far. It looks like he trained very hard this offseason, probably realizing the great opportunity for playing time in front of him. He looks far more explosive in and out of his breaks than the scouting reports suggested. His height is a great asset. Coming out of his breaks, he gets his body upright quickly, and consistently catches the ball high, which is extremely hard for defenders to make a play on. As a deep threat, he has the height and jumping ability, but probably not the second gear speed to beat NFL level defenders. Regardless, he could carve a very successful role in this west coast offense. Probably a good red zone threat. Personally, I think he will be starting as the team's number two wide receiver in week 1, while the rookies Sanu and Jones learn the playbook, consistency, and technique.

2012 Projection: 70 targets, 45 receptions, 540 yards, 12 yards/reception, 5 touchdowns.

Marvin Jones

2011 Stats Targets Receptions Yards Yards/Rec Touchdowns INT QB Rating
(College - 13 games) ? 62 846 13.6 3 ? ?

Marvin Jones didn't catch the eye of many scouts until late in the scouting process. In college, he was dealing with a very inaccurate quarterback, and he was starting across from one of the best wide receivers in the 2013 draft class - Keenan Allen, projected to go in the middle of the first round.

Jones was generally viewed as a late round wide receiver prospect, but an incredible showing at this year's senior bowl changed a lot of people's minds [2] [3] [4]. CBSSports.com's Rob Rang improved Jones' draft grade from the sixth round to the third round, and Rang believes Jones "could pay surprising dividends", as we reported back in May. Many believed Jones had the best showing of any wide receiver there. That's saying a lot, considering the talent there. T.J. Graham and DeVier Posey went in the third round, while A.J. Jenkins and Brian Quick were the 30th and 33rd overall picks, respectively.

Somehow though, Jones slipped all the way to the 5th round, where the Bengals snapped him up. Jones stands at 6'2", but he is pretty thin at just 195 pounds. Jones looks smooth and pretty when you watch him play, and his elite body control is always the first thing scouts mention. He has very good hands, and has great cutting ability and speed. He reminds many people of Chad Johnson, particularly with the way he runs and catches the ball. He has very big hands, and doesn't drop many balls. He can catch high throws and tap his feet down in bounds with ease, which is why he was used on so many sideline routes in college.

The biggest concern with Jones seems to be his bulk and strength. Can he beat press coverage and get physical as a blocker? He addressed both of these concerns well during Senior Bowl week, but it will take more than just a week of good plays to beat the reputation. Our own Joe Goodberry thinks Jones is an ideal Z receiver (what Jerome Simpson played last year), because it allows Jones to line up a few steps behind the line of scrimmage, where he won't have to worry about press coverage, and can work the sideline. [Stop what you are doing and make sure you've read that article, by the way.]

Jones is very dangerous with the ball in his hands as well. He is an elusive player who can juke and use his spin dodge very well. He was his team's primary punt returner as a senior, with 14 returns for 102 yards. He was also effective on end-arounds, with 11 carries and 116 yards. The Bengals have been giving Jones practice reps as a kick and punt returner in OTAs. If he isn't used frequently on offense, Jones will definitely make a mark as a return man. I'd much rather have Jones than Brandon Tate returning kickoffs.

Jones probably presents the greatest potential of any wide receiver on the team (outside AJ Green of course), but it will be interesting to see how quickly he is involved in the offense. He wasn't greatly productive last year in college, which makes you wonder if he can be effective right away in an NFL offense. Binns and Tate are the favorites to start opposite AJ Green right now, but Jones will definitely give them a run for their money in training camp. I think Marvin Jones will have a rookie season similar to Carl Pickens, doing most of his damage in the return game.

2012 Projection: 40 targets, 25 receptions, 325 yards, 13 yards/reception, 2 touchdowns.

Vidal Hazelton

2011 Stats Targets Receptions Yards Yards/Rec Touchdowns INT QB Rating
Practice Squad Player 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Vidal Hazelton has the NFL body you look for in a tall wide receiver at 6'2", 210 pounds. He's got quickness, agility, the toughness, and a lot of other positive physical traits.

He doesn't however, have the production. He's been through injuries, transfers, and a lot of bad luck. This ESPN article titled "The Best Player Not At The Combine" does a great job of explaining the hardships that Hazelton has already gone through. To summarize, he was the number two wide receiver prospect in the country coming out of high school in 2006. He had a scholarship to USC, known for their wide receiver prospects. He had a solid sophomore season, but he suffered a high ankle sprain at the beginning of his junior season. When he returned, the offense had moved on without him, and Hazelton decided to transfer to the UC Bearcats, where he would be closer to home. His grandpa had just been diagnosed with cancer. Expectations were high for Hazelton in his senior season, then he tore his ACL in the season opener. He wasn't even granted another season of eligibility.

Last year, he spent training camp with the San Diego Chargers, but wasn't given much of a chance. He spent most of the fall out of football, and was signed by the Bengals in December.

So far in OTAs, Hazelton has looked a bit rusty. He doesn't look very polished, and has dropped some balls. The physical tools appear to be there, but can he get himself back up to speed? Can he eliminate the lapses in concentration and become a reliable receiver? Maybe. To make this team, he either has to show something very special or show that he can be relied upon right away. His former Bearcat teammate Armon Binns is definitely ready to contribute right away. In the end, Hazelton's odds of making the team aren't good, but I wouldn't eliminate him as a potential guy down the road.

2012 Projection: Waived, or practice squad player.

Justin Hilton

2011 Stats Targets Receptions Yards Yards/Rec Touchdowns INT QB Rating
College - 10 games ? 32 540 16.9 4 ? ?

Now, this is a blue collar guy. We had a chance to interview Hilton back in May, and his responses were very honest. He compares his game to Mike Wallace, and his ability as a deep threat is good enough to back that up. Well, maybe.

He wasn't highly recruited out of high school, so he took the Aaron Rodgers route to the NFL. Butte Community College. He averaged a Mike Wallace-esque 18.9 yards/catch and posted 8 touchdowns [highlight video] and was named the Butte College Wide Receiver of the Year. Butte College also won the Junior College National Championship that year. Hilton took his strength, size, and speed to an FCS team in the following year, the Indiana State Sycamores.

In his first season with the Sycamores, he posted 40 receptions, 684 yards (17.1 average), and 7 touchdowns. His second season wasn't quite as good, but the tape is still impressive. He is definitely a home run type of receiver, which you will instantly see from his highlight videos. Hilton can climb the ladder and bring that ball down. Most of his catches come from deep balls, where he either beats the defensive back with his speed, or jumps over him.

He runs his forty yard dash in the around a 4.4, which is pretty speedy. He is a very physical player who attacks defenders in both his routes and blocking. He strides very well, and blew by cornerback after cornerback.

His weaknesses are simply what we don't know about him. Can he be a possession receiver as well? Can he successfully run routes other than a deep go? It's easy to get excited about Hilton, but you can't forget the level of competition Hilton was playing against in his highlight videos - the Missouri Valley Football Conference. He is a raw prospect with great potential, but he may struggle to pick up the NFL playbook right away. Running different routes and getting proper technique may be a struggle for him. Studying the available OTA footage online didn't make me feel too great about Hilton. He looks slow coming out of his breaks, and pretty unpolished overall. We'll see if he can shine in training camp.

2012 Projection: Waived, or practice squad player.

Mohamed Sanu

2011 Stats Targets Receptions Yards Yards/Rec Touchdowns INT QB Rating
College - 13 games ? 115 1206 10.4 7 ? ?

Finally [and I sheepishly realize that I have written an enormously large number of words at this point], we get to the third round pick, Mr. Mohamed Sanu.

Sanu is one of the easiest rookies to diagnose on the entire roster. His strengths and weaknesses are clearly defined and every scouting report says just about the same thing about him.

As a football player, he is extremely, extremely versatile. In high school, he was used as a dual-threat quarterback, wide receiver, safety and even punter. He wasn't highly touted, most experts believed he would be an above average safety at the college level. But, Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano had a different position in mind - wide receiver. Sanu enrolled early to get extra work in before the season started, and became the first true freshman to start at wide receiver for Greg Schiano (11 years at Rutgers). Sanu posted 51 receptions, 639 receiving yards, and 3 touchdowns as a receiver, but he was used even more in the wildcat formation. He had 62 carries (more than Jourdan Brooks) and averaged a strong 5.6 average yards/carry to go along with 5 rushing touchdowns. He also threw a touchdown pass. And he returned 17 punts.

His numbers didn't improve much as a sophomore, but he was 6 for 9 throwing the ball, where he totaled 160 passing yards and 3 passing touchdowns. He was even used on defense briefly, where he posted three tackles and an interception.

In his junior season, he truly broke out as a wide receiver. His 115 catches broke the all time Big East receptions record by a mile (formerly held by Larry Fitzgerald). He once had 16 receptions in a single game. His quarterback was inaccurate and made bad decisions, but he trusted Sanu as his go to guy. He worked almost exclusively on middle, underneath routes. He isn't a big play threat, and didn't have a single play go for over 35 yards in the last two years.

Every single scouting report will tell you that Sanu is a big, friendly target who has reliable hands, and he uses his body well to shield off defenders. He doesn't have great acceleration or burst, and almost runs like a tight end. Because his speed is clearly not elite, he doesn't project well as an outside receiver in the NFL. He will be at his best either serving in an Anquan Boldin role who works the middle, or exclusively as a slot receiver (also working the middle). He can play the outside spot, but may struggle with getting separation. He plays with great intensity and fearlessness, and is a great run blocker. He's also still raw as a wide receiver, and needs work on expanding his route tree and refining overall technique.

For 2012, his role in the offense largely depends on what the other players are able to provide. If Binns/Jones/Tate can work the outside the receiver role well, he probably will be limited to snaps as a slot receiver. If they aren't getting it done, we may see Sanu played out there quite a bit. The team's former starting slot receiver Jordan Shipley is still a possible candidate to begin the season on PUP, which would thrust Sanu into a prominent role very quickly as the team's primary slot receiver. He could see as many as 50% of the team's offensive snaps, if Shipley weren't ready to go. Because he really doesn't have any deep threat capability, I feel uncomfortable starting him as the second wide receiver. Safeties could almost literally ignore Sanu's side of the field for deep balls, and focus solely on A.J. Green. That's not good. That's why Sanu will find the quickest way to contribute as a slot receiver, who can back up all the other receivers in a pinch.

Assuming that Shipley is not put on PUP, here is my projection for Sanu. If Shipley is put on PUP, or possibly even cut, this projection would be a lot higher.

2012 Projection: 50 targets, 35 receptions, 350 yards, 10 yards/reception, 1 touchdown.

Thanks for reading. This is the longest article I've ever written, and I put a lot of work and time into it. Part II (on the six short guys) will be published tomorrow morning.

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