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Bengals Roster Bubble Watch: Wide Receiver

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Who will make the team as the fourth, fifth, and possibly sixth wide receivers?

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

So far, I have covered the TE/FB and halfback positional groups. Now it is time for the wide receivers, which is the group that provides perhaps the most interesting roster battle on the team. Bear with me, this is a long post...

A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanu are locks, as the respective starters at the "Z" flanker, "X" split-end, and "Y" slot receiver positions, respectively.

With the Bengals keeping three quarterbacks, it throws a wrinkle in for the rest of the roster. For example, Coley Harvey has the Bengals keeping only 5 WR and 9 OL. I have the team keeping 6 WR but only 8 OL. I understand Coley's perspective, but disagree with it because each one of our O-line backups is versatile, and I'd rather keep a sixth WR who can contribute on special teams than a third center or a fifth offensive tackle who can't. I also want the back-end wide receivers to preferably have both long-term potential and physical upside.

And regardless of what Coley and I think, the Bengals have shown a willingness in the past to drop to 8 OL but have never dropped to 5 WR; in fact, they kept 7 WR last season. So they could let it drop to 6, but probably wouldn't be willing to drop all the way to 5. For this article, I'm assuming we'll keep 6 WR. Seven is faintly possible, but seems to be too much for a team that will be running more and passing less. Then we'd have to reduce the depth at another position that needs and/or deserves that spot more.

Brandon Tate has been the team's primary kick returner and punt returner the past three seasons. He is a UFA after 2014. In 2013, Tate had a 26.1 KR average, good for 9th among 22 qualified NFL returners, with a long of 71. That's an improvement over 2011 and 2012, when he averaged 23.8 and 24.8, respectively.

Tate had a 9.3 PR average in 2013, which was 13th among 23 qualified NFL returners, with a long of 43. In 2012 he averaged 8.9 and in 2011 he averaged an impressive 10.6. Our other PR, Adam Jones, averaged 8.9 in 2013, and an impressive 11.6 in 2012.

Tate has certainly provided consistency the past three seasons, rarely fumbling while providing decent field position. But he seems to lack big plays at times. Adam Jones will surely get plenty of opportunities at PR this year, so Tate's primary job is still KR.

Tate hardly contributed on offense in 2013. However, the Bengals put his straight-line speed to good use in 2012. He led the team with a 16.2 YPC, and provided two of the biggest plays of the season- a long go-route TD vs. the Browns, and a long reception off a shovel pass leading to a FG at the Steelers, which provided the score difference in both Bengals victories.

Contributing as an actual WR would help his chances, and he is doing plenty of that in training camp, with impressive route-running and a handful of highlight-reel catches, this being just one of them:

This should be taken with a grain of salt, though:

Frankly, though, I'd say he's probably in even without that, because he's provided consistency as an above-average returner the past three seasons, and it will be difficult for someone to knock him off in one preseason.

Tate might not make the roster if Sanzenbacher can make a thorough impression on KR in preseason and win over the coaches- unlikely, but possible. That's the only realistic way that Tate doesn't make the roster. There are other various KR options than Tate and Dane, but I don't see them as realistic.

Cedric Peerman? He's already our primary upman/gunner, as well as primary kick/punt return protector.

Danieal Manning? He's fairly old and past his prime; there's a reason he hasn't returned kicks since 2010-2011.

Adam Jones? He's already being heavily used as a cornerback and punt returner.

Colin Lockett and Onterio McCalebb? Virtually no chance, because the Bengals would not save a roster spot by keeping one of them; they would not make the roster otherwise. It would be roster-efficient to have either Tate or Dane as the KR, because both have a good chance of making the team anyway based on actual positional play.

Dane Sanzenbacher was Andrew Hawkins' backup in 2013. After the Bengals refused to give Hawkins a second-round tender for just $700K more, he signed a lucrative deal with the Browns, moving up Dane into Hawkins' old niche as a slot and gadget player. Dane is a UFA after 2014. He's had a solid camp so far:

As mentioned, what would help Dane's chances for the roster, and at the expense of Brandon Tate, would be proving his worth as a return man in preseason. Sanzenbacher showed off his shiftiness and speed when he had a 71-yard PR for TD against the Falcons in 2013 preseason.

Frankly, though, I'd say Dane has a solid chance of making the roster even without that, since he fills the old Hawkins niche. Even if he is not used as a returner and is not used much on offense, Dane is still useful as an effective gunner on special teams.

Now that the Bengals have let Hawkins go, though, who knows if they care about the Hawkins role at all? We will be running the ball more. Sanu will get the lion's share of snaps at slot WR. Him and Wright are better blocking receivers than Dane, and Hamilton might be too. Plus, Dane doesn't have as much physical upside as Wright, or Hamilton, or even Tate. Dane's far from a lock.

Ryan Whalen was a sixth-round pick in 2011. He has been praised by the coaches for his work ethic, route-running, sure hands, solid special teams, and ability to play both outside and in the slot. Whalen brings some good to the table, which is why he's made the team each of the past three years; I don't want to sell him short.

Whalen lacks upside, though. While solid, he is pretty much the same guy today as he was three years ago, and his diminished playing time over the seasons has reflected that. He had 0 receptions in 2013. Meanwhile, higher-upside young guys like Jones, Sanu, Hawkins, even Sanzenbacher, moved past him on the WR depth chart.

What also doesn't help Whalen's cause is that he has a hamstring injury to start training camp. Furthermore, Whalen will be a UFA after 2014, so he might not be a good long-term option.

Cobi Hamilton was a sixth-round pick in 2013. At Arkansas, he was one of the top receivers in SEC history. He possesses upside, standing at 6' 2", 197 lbs with a 4.56 40 time.

To me, Hamilton has been great as a receiver in training camp. In my head, I'm saying to myself "how can we leave Hamilton off the roster?"

Tough TD catch in traffic:

Gliding in mid-air:

The video cut off, but this was a very impressive diving catch:

I'll admit that Cobi has had some recent problems with drops, though.

A major factor against Hamilton right now is that he is inexperienced on special teams; Geoff Hobson says he needs to get better (and that's a lot coming from Hobson, who usually has nothing but highly positive platitudes to say about the Bengals) while Coley Harvey simply says Hamilton has a "lack of special teams ability." Probably exaggerated, but point taken. Darrin Simmons and James Urban have also specifically commented that Hamilton has to improve on special teams if he wants to make the team.

James Wright was a seventh-round pick in 2014. He has potentially slightly better upside than Hamilton, standing at 6' 1", 201 lbs with a 4.46 40 time.

For Wright, the question has never been about his special-teams ability. At LSU, he was the team's best special-teamer both in coverage and in recovering turnovers.

It looks like Wright may be a first-team ST gunner:

So how is he doing so far as an actual WR? According to Coley Harvey, in OTA's, he made an impression:

During the minicamp and voluntary organized team activities the Bengals had this spring, Wright made his presence known. At least one reporter had a hard time ignoring Wright after he repeatedly chased down deep passes from all four Bengals quarterbacks. It was quite common to hear, on those days when media members were allowed to watch practices, compliments directed toward Wright from Urban and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson after various drills.

Part of the reason Wright went without a catch last season stems from the Tigers' receiver-deplete system. LSU seldom trotted out three- and four-receiver sets. It instead focused on running the ball and splitting receptions among the top two receivers and the top running back, Hill. As LSU's third-leading receiver, Hill caught 18 passes for 181 yards. Wideouts Jarvis Landry [a 2014 second-round pick] and Odell Beckham [a 2014 first-round pick] had 77 and 59 receptions apiece.

In addition to his special teams abilities, Wright became known at LSU for being a good blocker in pass scenarios. For a Bengals offense that is expected to rely in part on screen passes that can be turned into big gains, having another receiver who already knows how to block downfield would be an ideal addition.

And according to Paul Dehner Jr. as well:

Then there's James Wright of LSU. The seventh-round pick with special teams upside who was buried on the depth chart at LSU behind two top draft picks last year enjoyed shining moments. A triple move 20-yard out to the pylon in one-on-one still probably has Chris Lewis-Harris spinning. He blew by seventh-round pick Lavelle Westbrooks for a deep ball early in the week. If he can prove his worth as a receiver against the top DBs combined with his ability to contribute right away on teams, he has an argument to make the 53-man roster.

From my eyes, Wright has been great as a WR in training camp as well. In my head, I'm replaying the ridiculous body-contorting reception he had falling backward to the ground on a deep ball while being blanketed by a defender on training camp Monday, and the A.J. Green-esque leaping catch against Terence Newman he had Thursday, and saying to myself "how can we leave Wright off the roster?"

I agree with Brennen. Jasper Collins, Jeremy Johnson, Colin Lockett, and Conner Vernon all have a lot of work to do just to make it to the bubble itself. They have virtually no chance at the roster, nor even the practice squad.

I agree with Coley; it's tough to see how Wright can be left off.

Because of Tate's consistency as an above-average returner the past three seasons and his decent looks as a WR, Dane taking over the old Hawkins niche and his special-teams ability, and Wright's deep-threat potential and outstanding special-teams ability, what I predict the coaches and front office will do is keep Tate, Sanzenbacher, and Wright. I'd be fine with that, personally.

Ryan Whalen has been creeping closer to the back of the roster each year, and his bubble may finally burst. However, this coaching staff has kept him 3 years running, so you never know for sure about Whalen.

Meanwhile, Hamilton would head to the practice squad in this case, unless he is claimed off waivers. Hamilton must improve on special teams if he wants to make the roster. If he does not, then it would probably not be a good idea to keep him over another player such as Trevor Robinson, Sean Porter or Marquis Flowers, or R.J. Stanford or Lavelle Westbrooks.

If Hamilton can improve on drops and special teams, and if Hue Jackson doesn't care to use a roster spot on a Hawkins-like gadget player in his new offense, and is fine with just Sanu at slot WR, they may keep Tate, Wright, and Hamilton. I'd say that this has a realistic chance of happening, and I'd be fine with it.

If Dane can thoroughly prove himself on kickoffs, then they might keep Sanzenbacher, Wright, and Hamilton. This is possible, but unlikely, because it's going to be tough for Dane to beat Tate in one preseason.

If the coaches value Hamilton's already having a year of practice squad grooming, and his slightly better draft status than Wright, then they might keep Tate, Sanzenbacher, and Hamilton. But at least so far, I simply do not see how Hamilton is a better option than Wright for the roster, when factoring in special teams.

For the poll below, every choice has at least Tate or Sanzenbacher if not both, because one of them (almost certainly Tate) will be our KR.