We continue our list of priorities for the Bengals to potentially reach that championship level in 2015 and this one is a bit more specific than No.5 on the list. In an effort to aid Andy Dalton as much as possible, solidifying the slot will be a key to this offense's productivity.
A few things have become en vogue for the NFL in recent years. During this "era of the quarterback" in what is now known as "a passing league", a capable player on the inside of an offensive formation can create mismatches. These players vary from a tight end or a smaller shifty player and greatly aid a quarterback, especially when primary outside routes break down.
Be it injuries, forced shuffling of the receiver and tight end groups, and/or ineffectiveness of players, the team didn't have a consistently viable threat from the spot. These players are usually chain-movers and could have helped Cincinnati's No.18 ranking in that respect last season. Say what you would like about the big-play capability of Andrew Hawkins, but his unexpected departure to Cleveland hurt. After all, he did have 63 catches for a Browns team that had issues at quarterback all season.
The Worry Surrounding The Injured/Recovering:
Unfortunately, an injury to Marvin Jones and other nagging ones to A.J. Green pressed Mohamed Sanu into a bigger role than he was accustomed to and a much more significant one than the team had planned. To his credit, Sanu had a great first portion of the season, but tumbled downhill in the second half. Drops and non-acknowledgement from Dalton on routes made him a non-factor late in the season. With Jones out of the lineup permanently and Green in and out, Sanu had to go to the outside, though the plan and his comfort zone might have been better with the inside routes.
If you watched the first quarter of the season opener against the Baltimore Ravens, it was clear that Hue Jackson had big plans for Tyler Eifert. He had three catches in his only quarter of action, and lined up both in-line and at the slot. A likely common formation planned for last season was to have Jermaine Gresham as the in-line tight end with Eifert split out wide or in the slot. Unfortunately, perceived mismanagement of his injury never allowed this plan to come to fruition last season.
James Wright looked pretty good for a millisecond, with his five catches and 18.2 yards per catch last season, but if the team is unabashedly hanging their hat on a guy with zero catches his senior season at LSU and less than a half-dozen as an NFL rookie, that might not be the best alternative. Wright also had injuries this year, missing the season's final six games, including the playoff loss to the Colts.
Hawkins' vacancy should have allowed Dane Sanzenbacher an opportunity to make an impact in the slot--particularly with so many other wide receiver injuries. The Bengals showed good faith in the Ohio State product with a lucrative deal for a guy that had just six catches in 2013. His encore? Nine catches for 105 yards, a lost fumble and season-ending appearance on the Injured Reserve list with a concussion.
Should there be expectations for some/all of these guys to contribute in 2015? Sure, that's fair. But, as I said in the previous offseason priorities post, added help and competition will be needed.
Aside from hoping to get something out of the above-mentioned guys, slot receivers seem to be somewhat abundant in the draft. One of the bigger names that comes to mind is Kansas State's Tyler Lockett, a guy with good hands, great savvy and a high football IQ. His size and other knocks (hand size) will likely cause him to drop a little, but he could be a productive NFL player.
There are other "smaller guys" in the draft who could kick outside or in at the next level and contribute besides Lockett. Duke's Jamison Crowder, USC's Nelson Agholor, and Miami's (FL) Phillip Dorsett are all intriguing as mid- to high-round guys to come in and compete. We'll talk more about the stockpiling of weapons, aside from the avoidance of playing "the waiting game" with rehabbing guys, but if Marvin Jones comes back healthy early on, one would expect to see he and Green out wide, with Sanu back in the slot.
Depending on their positional preference for Ryan Hewitt, tight end could play a major factor here as well. Because of the up-in-the-air status of the non-contracted Gresham and what seems to be the end of Alex Smith's career, there might be two new tight ends in stripes next season. Though Hewitt played some tight end last season, they seem to really like him as more of a lead blocker out of the backfield, leaving spots open at tight end.
Be it in free agency and/or the draft, that would mean that a true in-line tight end should be considered as more of a blocker type. Then, a more athletic pass-catcher in the mold of Eifert might be brought in as well--sort of a two-and-two thing. Again, this could depend on if they view Hewitt as more of a "swing guy" between positions or not. Either way, there are a lot of intriguing names out there hitting the free market or available in the draft.
It's going one of two routes: either it will be a lot more of the same with a Gresham re-signing and a finally healthy Eifert and Sanu manning the slot most of the time. Or, the Bengals will do a complete one-eighty and mix it up. For the record, "solidifying the slot" doesn't mean kicking Eifert and Sanu to the curb, but rather adding in additional talent with different skill sets and having a potential contingency plan for rehabbing players and other possible departures.
If there was one thing that the Bengals missed down the stretch on offense, it seemed to be a utility player with speed, like Hawkins--especially with the injuries. If the team is able to get more out of their pass-catching tight ends and get Sanu in a more comfortable role, all while adding other pieces, it should boost Jackson's offense. If anything, they're surrounding Dalton with as much talent as possible, right?