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Mohamed Sanu acting as unheralded, yet valuable asset to Bengals' offense

It's a team effort that got the Bengals to 8-0, but fans shouldn't count out a complementary wide receiver who has routinely taken a back seat to other high-profile weapons.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

There have been many critics to Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's play, but regardless of your opinion on him, he distributes the ball well. It's been a blueprint of the team's brain trust over the years to surround a good quarterback with great weapons.

Most obvious is the Pro Bowl and possible future Hall of Fame wide receiver, A.J. Green, but Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones and two solid running backs help No. 14's job with their respective skill sets. However, as other championship teams have had in the past, the Bengals have another multidimensional receiving weapon who helps what Hue Jackson's offensive scheme likes to achieve.

Green was drafted fourth overall in 2011 (with Dalton coming in the second round), but 2012 was the draft class that began to rebuild the offense. After Chad Johnson, the team's leading receiver in most significant categories, was shipped to the Patriots in a trade before 2011 and the team eschewed re-signing the athletic, but troubled and inconsistent Jerome Simpson in 2012 free agency, the Bengals needed to give Dalton more weapons.

Jones was pegged as a potential second or third round pick, while Mohamed Sanu, a reliable guy out of Rutgers, was selected in the third round. Those two would supplement Green's all-around skill set with a big-play guy and a chain-mover, respectively. Though both have battled injuries and inconsistency, they've proven to be great complements to Green.

Rightfully so, Green, Jones and Eifert have received the bulk of attention and looks from Dalton--especially this year. However, Sanu is a critical player to what Jackson likes to do on offense. Part of it stems from Sanu's versatility.

In 48 games played, Sanu has 14 total touchdowns (11 receiving, one rushing and two passing) as a a guy who has largely been a third or fourth option in the offense. As a rookie, Sanu excited with four touchdown grabs in nine games, but got injured. Then, in 2014 after injuries to Jones, Green and Eifert, he was pressed into a huge role in which he responded pretty well. Drops were prevalent, but Sanu had five touchdown catches with almost 800 receiving yards.

Those who watch Bengals games know he isn't a deep threat, unless he breaks tackles to take it the distance. What Sanu provides is a guy who moves the chains and can add a little sizzle to an offense when needed, in unconventional form. He hasn't been relied on as much in 2015 because of the return of so many weapons, but has come up big when his number has been called.

One such barometer is the amount of first downs (87) on career receptions (233) throughout his career. A knock, but also praise on him when he came out of college was his ability to make catches, even though most would be contested at the NFL level because his inability to create separation. In the Bengals' offense, he has created opportunities to get open in space, but also use his physicality to make tough catches and subsequent yards.

Green is big, but slight, at 6'4" and 205 pounds, and Jones is more of a speedy guy at 6'2" and 200 pounds. It's the bulky Sanu at 6'2" and 210 who gives the Bengals' offense a bit of a different dimension. As a sort of miniature tight end, Sanu has the ability to take short routes and extend the play when other receivers might not consistently have the ability to do so.

When he isn't throwing a touchdown pass to Green or converting first downs on catches, Sanu is making plays with his legs. On more than one occasion, Jackson has entrusted Sanu with option-pass routes where he can wing it or tuck and run. He did it a few weeks ago against the Bills, were he opted to run for an eight-yard gain instead of forcing a ball into coverage. It was a bit more of the latter that helped Cincinnati on Thursday night against the Cleveland Browns.

Sanu had three receptions for 25 yards against the Browns with a first down. However, it was his play in the second half that not only spotlighted his skill set, but shined a light on the Bengals' overall strength as an offensive unit. On an first and 10 from the Cleveland 25-yard line, Jackson channeled his inner Merlin and dialed up a reverse to Sanu.

What ensued was a gigantic play that began to put the game away to the tune of 24-10 with a 25-yard scamper.

Later in the evening, former Cincy Jungle contributor, draft expert and great Twitter follow, Joe Goodberry, began to look at the future for the Bengals and their big impending free agent class Cincinnati has impending. While that's a bit premature because of the great start to the 2015 season, it's something the team will need to look at to keep their championship window open as long as possible. Jones and Sanu are both free agents next offseason.

While we aren't going into the full argument of "Jones or Sanu", it should be noted the Bengals should very well be able to keep both. And, if both parties are wise about it, Sanu should stay in Cincinnati for years to come. The budding wideout must realize that, barring a system that pegs a player like him as a primary weapon, his best option for productivity and chance for a championship, will be in Cincinnati.

How many times have we seen a good role player leave via free agency to go to a poor team and see poor results? Poor teams, desperate for offensive weapons likely for a new quarterback, tend to overpay for a guy who has had previous success and throw him into an increased role. We're not saying Sanu can't handle No. 2 responsibilities, but his chain-moving in the Bengals' system plays to his strengths.

There is an odd dichotomy here: teams prefer to use the draft for cheap, young talent, but good teams recognize who got them where they are at and reward them. Could receiver-hungry teams like Kansas City, Cleveland, St. Louis and others overpay for a guy like Sanu and force him into a role that potentially makes him less productive? Or will Sanu look at the track record of other big Bengals' free agents and see that his best opportunity for production and championships resides in The Queen City?

In what's been a wise 180 on how the Bengals have previously run the franchise; they draft guys they like and keep them around once they fit their plans. Cincinnati still likes to use the draft to build their team, but they have also shown a penchant to rely on trusted veterans. A question may arise, even though they will have ample cap space, if they should sign the exciting, but injury-prone Jones or the solid Sanu. For now, it seems like both could stay in Cincinnati, if they take care of both, financially.

While that's another conversation for another time, Sanu once again proved his worth to the Bengals' offense on Thursday night. He finished with 25 receiving yards, 25 rushing yards and the touchdown on the reverse. The team and fans can enjoy it for now, but the Bengals should keep both Jones an Sanu in their sights to continue their offensive momentum for years to come. It's especially critical because of the dreaded injury bug.