Going into the 2012 NFL Draft, many draftniks linked the Cincinnati Bengals with Rutgers wide receiver, Mohamed Sanu. What many didn't predict was that Sanu would fall to the team towards the latter portion of the third round, instead of the first two rounds as many experts projected. With the 2012 Training Camp upon us and the second wide receiver job up for grabs, the idea of where Sanu fits into the offense is at the forefront of most Bengals' fans minds.
For those that are familiar with the team, Sanu seems to be headed to the slot position. He makes tough catches and fights through traffic to come down with the ball. With Jordan Shipley rehabbing a knee injury and Jay Gruden's West Coast Offense in need of many sure-handed wide receivers, Sanu seems to be destined to share that spot with Shipley. While that's true, I'm beginning to wonder if Sanu's potential contributions to the Bengals' offense have been underestimated.
RELATED ARTICLE: Cincy Jungle Mailbag: Projecting Some 2012 Bengals Statistics
There's not a clear-cut No. 2 receiver opposite A.J. Green right now. Some feel that Brandon Tate has the inside track on the job because he has the most NFL experience. Others believe that Armon Binns will win the job because he has impressed many onlookers at the team's mimcamp back in May and has good size for a player at the position. Either scenario might be true and we could see what amounts to a committee approach, as we expect to see with the running back position.
However, I think it's Sanu who is going to play an integral role in the offense and I feel that we're likely to see him on the field as a two or three-down receiver. I actually think that in two and three receiver sets, Sanu will be the starter to line up opposite Green and then rotate into the slot--particularly on early downs. There is a few reasons for the method to my madness.
The first is size. Shipley is your prototypical player for that slot position. He is listed at six feet tall and just under 190 pounds. He's very productive at the position because he's shifty and finds holes in the defense's coverage. He's more quick than fast, but he's a chain-mover with a solid set of hands. Sanu on the other hand, has two inches on Shipley and over twenty pounds. As much as I like Shipley and what he brings, I feel confident in pronouncing Sanu as a superior athlete. If you have Green on one side standing at 6'4", and Sanu on the other side at 6'2", that's a pretty formidable setup. You can still have Shipley on the field with those two lined up in the slot in an early down three-receiver set.
The second is production. Obviously, Shipley had an impressive rookie campaign and many Bengals fans were excited at his future. He suffered an unfortunate knee injury in the first half of the second game in 2011 that shelved him for the rest of the year, having amassed only four catches for 14 yards. Really, if you look at it objectively, Shipley's one season of NFL production, though in the stat books, really doesn't mean much now that he's working with a new coordinator and quarterback from that impressive 2010 rookie season.
So, let's look back at college production then. Their final years in college nearly mirrored each other. In Shipley's senior season at Texas (2009), he racked up 116 catches for 1,485 yards and 13 touchdowns. In his junior season (2011), Sanu caught 115 balls for 1,206 yards and seven touchdowns. The difference? Shipley had Vince Young and Colt McCoy throwing him the football throughout his college career. Sanu on the other hand, had well, nobody of note throwing him his passes.
Lastly, let's look at versatility as a reason for Sanu to be on the field often for the Bengals. The fact that the idea of shifting him around in the offense from outside to slot should be an indication of his potential offensive impact. There has bee zero mention of Shipley moving to the outside even though he played that spot in college. There has also been no indication that the team plans to use Binns or Tate in the slot, even though their body sizes are comparable to Sanu's. The fact that the team can use Sanu in a variety of ways almost guarantees a large quantity of snaps for the former Rutgers star.
Sanu isn't without his limitations, either. He's not a speedy player, which ultimately hurt his draft stock a bit. Because of that lack of straight line speed (which can be an overrated aspect to an NFL wide receiver's game), Sanu isn't perceived as much of a deep threat. The majority of his looks will likely be across the middle, in the red zone, or working the sidelines. Still, an NFL receiver can make a pretty good living with that kind of repertoire.
Ultimately, this is what I see happening with the offense this year. Sanu will win the No. 2 outside receiver job going into the regular season. Now, "winning" that job, doesn't mean he will be locked into that spot. I envision him being pushed into a slot position with Shipley in four wide receiver sets, flanked by Green and either Binns or Tate on the outside. There are times where he'll need a "breather" and/or various offensive packages that will call for more height and/or speed on the outside, so Sanu would take a seat for a down or two and that would again allow Binns or Tate to enter the game on the outside with the option of placing Shipley in the slot once again. All in all, I project Sanu to be a tow or three down player in this offense.
I'll stand by my projections that I made earlier this summer in the mailbag feature (linked above), but I wouldn't be surprised to see him surpass those because of his skill set and versatility.