This offseason has been marked by extensive talk about which player will emerge as the starter in a heated battle for the second starting receiver spot.
So far in training camp and preseason, it hasn't been the third rounder Mohamed Sanu leading the pack in the battle, as many expected. It hasn't been the playmaker Marvin Jones either, who was regarded as a steal in the fifth round. Rather, it's been led by Armon Binns and Brandon Tate, who were both waived by their respective former teams in in final cuts last year, and didn't go on to record a single catch while with the Bengals in the entire 2011 season. Brandon Tate was used exclusively as a punt and kick returner, and Armon Binns was chained to the team's practice squad.
Fast forward to the start of the 2012 offseason, and both players seem vastly improved. Head Coach Marvin Lewis, when asked, "Who do you think has made the biggest strides over the offseason?", replied that Binns and Tate had undergone an "evolution".
Marvin Lewis: I think the wide receiver position, the evolution of Brandon Tate and Armon Binns and the addition of Sanu.
Most fans were hesitant to trust Binns and Tate as the leading candidates for the second wide receiver spot, but the pair haven't lost any ground in the battle yet. They've both made impressive catches at camp, and both made highlight plays in yesterday's first preseason game against the New York Jets.
In fact, they posted the exact same statline of two receptions for 24 yards. The catches were tough snags that raised a few eyebrows. They also mirrored each other with impressive catches that didn't count, but showed off their skills. Tate caught a ball 20 yards down the sideline in his fingertips that was high over his head, but the throw was too far out of bounds. Binns had a nice 19 yard reception on a catch and run play where he made a defender miss, but it was wiped out due to a holding call on center Reggie Stephens.
Tough catches that demonstrated their athleticism.
Tate was listed as the first string receiver on Monday's release of the depth chart, but it was Binns who actually 'started' the game yesterday and had more snaps with the first team. Just further examples that one leader might not actually emerge in the battle, as Andy Dalton suggested this week, but rather a group with a 2a, 2b, 2c, and so on.
Binns and Tate are 2a and 2b (in whichever order) at this point, but Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones are nipping at their heels, and Ryan Whalen is in the mix as well.
Even though the battle for the second receiver spot is the fiercest battle in camp, frontrunners Tate and Binns are actually the closest friends of the group.
"Tate is one of my closest friends in the group. We’re always pushing each other in practice, ‘What are you going to do? What are you going to do?’" Binns said. "So it was cool to both be out there making plays."
Once OTAs ended, the pair even trained together at Ignition Athletic Performance, a local gym in Mason. It's a mutual friendship of respect and competition, and they know that each brings a different element to the field.
"We’re really deep at this position," said Binns. "Tate is a great player and brings a whole different dynamic to the position. The more guys that we have – the better our team is going to be.
Binns is the tall, rangy 6'3" guy who can make all sorts of high catches down the middle of the field and tap his toes down on high sideline throws, just like the former wearer of the #85 jersey.
Tate is shorter and more of a speed guy. He has a lot of after the catch wiggle, which he showed last year as the team's return man.
It's still early, but at this point in time, both seem more reliable than the guys the replaced - Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell. When your quarterback demands precision and relies on timing in his throws, reliability is a key component to have.
And neither of them are feeling cocky or smug about their frontrunner status either. Tate deflected any questions about expectations or his involvement in the offense, repeating, "The only thing I can worry about is going out there and doing by job, just trying to make the catch whenever the ball comes my way". Binns, when asked if he "feels like he’s clinched one of the wide receiver spots", replied:
"I don’t ever want to feel like that," Armon told me. "I just want to keep chipping away. When the regular season hits and I’m here, that’s when I’ll feel like I’ve made the team."
Again, it's still early. The team will have three more preseason games and about a month of practices to evaluate the wide receiver position. That's a lot of time for Binns and Tate to slip up. Maybe they let drops become an issue, as Binns has had problems with in the past, or injuries become an issue, as Tate has had problems with in the past. The rookies Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones will gladly step into their shoes. Both rookies have had their moments in camp, and Jones had the longest play of the first preseason game, a 48 yard deep ball that he tracked well and made a guy miss after the catch.
For now though, it's the Binns and Tate show.