With emerging rookie receiver Mohamed Sanu (4) doubling A.J. Green's touchdown production (2) in the past three games, some are beginning to wonder if Sanu is Cincinnati's best rookie. Maybe he is. Maybe not. Does it really matter anyway, considering that there's no award for best rookie, as if we're intoxicated by the reality show invasion that awards a player with a contract for next season through a fan vote.
Last year the Bengals selected Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, both of whom played in the Pro Bowl during their rookie campaigns, as well as Clint Boling who is currently rated as a top-ten guard in the league according to Pro Football Focus' grading scale. Andrew Hawkins, Ryan Whalen and Vinny Rey were also part of the 2011 rookie class.
Save for the obvious discovery of a starting quarterback and one of the league's top wide receivers, the Bengals may have found more glitter with this rookie class, combining to form a young nucleus that could finally sustain long-term success for the Bengals.
Currently there are are 18 rookies under contract; 11 on the active roster (and three of those were undrafted), three on IR and four on the practice squad. Five of those rookies on the 53-man roster started at least once this year (Kevin Zeitler, Sanu, Trevor Robinson, Vontaze Burfict and Orson Charles) and even more appears destined as foundation long-term players.
OG KEVIN ZEITLER: Was named as the starting right guard from day one after being drafted No. 27 during the 2012 NFL draft. Has started every game and has missed only one offensive snap. According to Pro Football Focus' grading system, Zeitler is the sixth-ranked offensive guard (fourth-ranked at right guard) in the NFL.
CB DRE KIRKPATRICK: The team's first draft pick this year struggled with a knee early, only now slowly making his way on the field, primarily in a special teams role. Still buried deep on the depth chart, Kirkpatrick's reign figures to start next year with Terence Newman, Adam Jones and Nate Clements possibly entering free agency during the offseason.
WR MOHAMED SANU: At one point during the season, Jay Gruden admitted that he didn't really know how to use Sanu. Due to injuries at the position, Sanu was thrust into the starting lineup and ridiculously produced, scoring more touchdowns in the past three games than A.J. Green. Though Sanu's overall production has been limited -- he just recorded a career-high five receptions against the Raiders -- a majority of his receptions have converted third and fourth downs, as well as touchdowns. He's quickly gained Andy Dalton's confidence, especially during critical moments in the game.
C TREVOR ROBINSON: Found his way to the starting lineup when Jeff Faine
sucked suffered a hamstring injury that severely restricted his playing time. Though Robinson hasn't played great (struggled during pass blocks at times), he's still an improvement over Faine with a future that's promising enough to challenge the incumbent Kyle Cook down the road. Don't worry. When Cook comes back, he'll immediately start.
LB VONTAZE BURFICT: Went from undrafted free agent with major red flags to starting linebacker in the NFL within a few months, largely due to personal motivation and guidance from Marvin Lewis. When Thomas Howard suffered a season-ending injury, Burfict stepped in, starting nine games (playing 11), posting a sack, two passes defensed and two fumble recoveries (one on special teams). According to NFL.com, he has 76 tackles; Bengals.com (which uses the coaches film) has him with 87 tackles through the Chiefs game last week. Burfict is also second on the team with five tackles for loss.
TE ORSON CHARLES: Despite only generating 84 yards receiving on seven receptions, Charles has played 195 offensive snaps this year, starting four games including Cincinnati's two most recent. According to PPF grading system, Charles is viewed as a better blocker in both the run and pass than Jermaine Gresham. Rarely replaces Gresham though, often playing during double-tight formations. Generated a career-high two receptions against the Oakland Raiders last week.
WR MARVIN JONES: Missed time during the season with a knee injury against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but has shown a capacity to play the deep threat. Posted two 40-plus yard receptions during the preseason, though he's only been targeted six times on 60 offensive snaps this year.
DT DEVON STILL: When Pat Sims was out with an injury, it was Devon Still that filled in. Played well enough against the run, and figures to be a long-term solution, especially if Sims leaves Cincinnati during the offseason.
DT BRANDON THOMPSON: Has only played three games and 23 defensive snaps. We really don't know how to view Thompson at this point, much like Still, due to the limited number of participation on defense. We figure he'll bolster a defensive line rotation in the future, but just not this year.
S GEORGE ILOKA: Has played seven games this year, primarily on special teams with multiple recorded tackles. Beyond that the log-jam in the secondary and the Nate Clements experiment has stalled any chance to produce on defense during games.
LB EMMANUEL LAMUR: Another undrafted free agent, Lamur has shown his safety-level speed in coverage, easily batting down a Peyton Manning pass against the Denver Broncos. Most of his time has been on special teams, where he's already generated at least four special teams tackles.
The Cincinnati Bengals have four rookies on the practice squad, including running back Dan Herron who struggled during the preseason. We're not exactly sure if the Bengals have long-term plans for Herron, save for an emergency backup on the practice squad. However cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris was a surprise during the preseason, playing well for the injured Dre Kirkpatrick. Though the roster configuration didn't favor Lewis-Harris this year, he should have an opportunity next year to make the 53-man roster.
Undrafted free agents Tony Dye and cornerback Taveon Rogers were played on IR during the preseason during roster cuts to make room for others. Dye and Rogers posted four and three tackles respectively. Shaun Prater however didn't get a chance, suffering a knee injury early during training camp (didn't play during the preseason) and eventually placed on IR.