First, let's clarify exactly what happened at the spot last year.
When the season began, Armon Binns and Brandon Tate were viewed as the favorites at the coveted No. 2. Binns actually started the first six games and played roughly 75% of the snaps on offense during that span. Tate, on the other hand, averaged only about 20% of the offense's snaps.
Before the Steelers game in week seven, Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden decided to make some changes. Binns wouldn't catch another pass with the Bengals, and Marvin Jones was expected to step in. Jones was going "to get the bulk of the snaps" in this game, but he was injured during the team's intital kickoff return when a blocker was pushed into his right knee. He was out for five weeks with an MCL sprain. Ryan Whalen, Brandon Tate, and Mohamed Sanu were all given the opportunity to shine, but no one stood out that weekend and Dalton only completed fourteen passes during the loss.
The bye week arrived in week eight, giving Gruden a chance to reset. By week ten, Sanu became the starter, kicking off a three-game stretch where Sanu caught eleven passes and four touchdowns. It was clear that Dalton and Sanu clicked, trusting each other across the middle and especially in the red zone. However, Sanu couldn't avoid injury either. He suffered a stress fracture in his foot during a practice in late November.
The reins to the second starting spot were handed right back to Jones, who finally recovered from his MCL sprain. Dalton and Jones didn't get in rhythm at first, struggling with timing and communication, but eventually Jones posted 15 receptions during his final five games. To try and fix this problem, they focused on specific timing routes during the last regular season game against Baltimore. Jones was targeted eight times, catching five of them for 45 yards and a touchdown.
In the playoff game, Jones would be on the field for 96% of the offense's snaps, only recording three passes for 34 yards - a sub-par performance (but then no one played well that day).
The Bengals entered the offseason knowing one thing for sure - the offense must improve.
Sanu versus Jones
The two sophomore receivers are the favorites to start opposite A.J. Green. They have distinct skillsets that separate themselves from each other, which gives the Bengals offense plenty of options. Both are capable of lining up anywhere in formation, even in the backfield.
Sanu is more of a possession receiver, with a thick build and strong hands. Like Anquan Boldin, he works the middle of the field with confidence, excellent body control, and poise. Sanu can make the contested receptions by using his body like a power forward in the post.
Jones has a slender frame, but roughly the same height as Sanu. Jones has better top-end speed than Sanu, who probably isn't going to beat many defenders deep. Sanu spent 64% of his snaps in the slot, while Jones spent only 17% of his snaps there. Jones works the sideline well due to his impressive body control and toe-tapping ability.
Overall, they each have unique strengths to set themselves apart. The battle for the starting spot won't be won easily.
Tate, the wildcard
Fans don't like Brandon Tate. That much is immediately clear. He didn't build his fan-base last year due to constant mental errors as the Bengals' return man.
Physically, he is still a young and talented player. His lateral bounce, as I call it, makes him an elusive player in the open field. He's embarrassed more than a few defenders with a devastating juke, but he also makes too many moves at times.
As a receiver, he is still a little raw. He needs to work on refining his route running. He has made some impressive catches in his two-year tenure as a Bengals (like this one against the Chiefs), but they haven't occurred often enough. He needs to work on consistency and becoming a more reliable guy for Dalton.
Many fans don't even want Tate on the 53-man roster, but Marvin Lewis recently stated he is in the running for the starting spot in a chat last week:
"Yes, Marvin [Jones] did a good job of really emerging as a young player. Right now, I really can't tell you who will be starting opposite A.J. if we are in a two WR set whether that is Mo Sanu, Marvin or Brandon Tate."
Additionally, Bengals.com writer Geoff Hobson called Tate a "virtual lock" a month ago. At the very least, Tate is a viable backup receiver who can also be the team's return man.
In the end, the battle will probably be won by Mohamed Sanu or Marvin Jones. But don't sleep on Tate, as much as you may hate him.