Under Marvin Lewis' tenure, the Bengals have always carried at least six wide receivers on their roster, and have not been afraid to activate all six for a game. In 2013, they were even willing to keep seven, and did activate all seven on occasion. For 2015, here's why they should seriously consider carrying only five.
1) The Bengals' offensive strength is the run game, and Jeremy Hill is primed to break-out in 2015.
We all know that Hill is the real deal. As a rookie, he was already a top-10 back. It's obvious that if the Bengals hadn't drafted Hill, then they wouldn't have made the playoffs in 2014. Pro Football Focus projects that he will take the league by storm in 2015:
PFF projects Jeremy Hill to finish 2015 with 303 carries, 1405 yards (4.64 yards/carry), 12 rushing TDs
— Brennen Warner (@JustBeWarned) February 19, 2015
PFF projects Hill to have the third-most rushing attempts, the third-most rushing yards, and tie for the most rushing TD. In their projections, Hill finishes third in those first two categories behind only LeSean McCoy and Arian Foster, and ties with Marshawn Lynch for the most TD. They also project Hill to tack on 23 receptions for 179 yards and a TD. Hill is already near or at elite status as an RB. (Le'Veon Bell is projected to be the best RB overall, because he is only barely behind McCoy/Foster/Hill in rushing, and then blows them away in receiving.)
Given that the Bengals have a top-5 RB, a second top-20 RB, a top-5 blocking FB, the best LT, a top-10 LG, a top-5 RG, and a top-5 RT, it's undeniable that the team's offensive strength is the run game. That's not a knock on Andy Dalton. The run game is going to be really, really good.
Also, just because Dalton isn't the main focus doesn't mean he has no chance of playing well, especially with an elite WR and several other decent receiving options in addition to this dominant running game and OL. There's no reason for him to apologize for being gifted with all of this, but he must play at a consistent level that is better than what he has shown in his first four seasons.
2) The Bengals have a few players who are not officially wide receivers, but who have shown they can play the position well.
In addition to Hill's projection above, PFF projects Giovani Bernard to have 93 carries for 382 yards (4.1), 4 rushing TD's, 41 receptions, 505 receiving yards, and 2 receiving TD's. No RB in their projections has more than a few receiving TD's, but Bernard finishes eighth in receptions and fifth in receiving yards. Dating back to 2013, Bernard has often been effective at slot receiver. With Hill pounding the rock in 2015, Bernard should see plenty of time in the slot.
Rex Burkhead was used at slot receiver in the most recent playoff game and was fairly effective. He had a 26-yard end-around, and then made a leaping, body-contorting 23-yard reception to convert on a third down. He also made significant contributions as a receiver during the win against the Saints, with three impressive first-down conversions. And he looked good as a rusher at the end of the blowout of the Browns. Burkhead has been a solid contributor whenever given the chance to play.
In his rookie year, Tyler Eifert showed he could be both a slot receiver and an outside receiver. His athleticism allows him to be an actual WR, not just a traditional TE. His biggest play as a slot receiver was a 61-yard reception against the Steelers on Monday Night Football, and he was an outside WR mainly in the red zone. PFF projects him to have 45 receptions for 491 yards and 3 TD's, which is not great, but not bad either.
3) Whoever the Bengals hypothetically keep as the sixth WR would not be a very good football player -- essentially dead weight.
The Bengals have a four-man core of wide receivers: A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and James Wright. They will all make the team comfortably.
The Bengals will look at WR in the draft. The general consensus is that they should draft a WR in the mid to high rounds. Some of the prospects the Bengals should be interested in taking a look at include: Phillip Dorsett, Devin Smith, Nelson Agholor, Jamison Crowder, Tyler Lockett, and Stefon Diggs. A handful of them bring legitimate return-man ability to the table as well. This newly drafted WR will make the team.
So here are the remaining candidates for the hypothetical sixth WR spot:
a) Greg Little, who is under contract and thus has this spot by default for now
b) Brandon Tate, if re-signed
c) Dane Sanzenbacher, if re-signed
d) Cobi Hamilton, Tevin Reese, or Eric Ward
e) a second rookie WR, potentially a late-round draft pick or UDFA
Little has always had one of the highest drop rates in the league and was cut by the Browns and Raiders. He has physical ability and good route-running, but has a lot of trouble catching the ball. Heading into his fifth year, it's hard to believe that will change.
Tate is a preseason all-star who rarely produces when the game actually matters. During the actual season, he is a mediocre receiver and return man. Plus, keeping Tate would give Marvin Lewis the temptation to use him often on returns, robbing the Bengals of an opportunity to get a big return from Adam Jones or the new rookie.
Sanzenbacher is also a preseason all-star who doesn't produce. He is a small, slow receiver with no upside who can't separate from cornerbacks. Also, he can't play outside WR, only the slot. The Week 7 Colts game, in which he had nearly 50 snaps but zero targets, encapsulates his play perfectly: he doesn't have the quickness to consistently get open, even from the slot.
If you believe that Sanzenbacher is a better slot receiver than Eifert or Bernard, then I have a bridge to sell you. Even Burkhead made bigger plays from the slot position in the playoff game than Sanzenbacher has ever made in his regular-season Bengals career. Dane tries hard, but he's simply not a talented-enough football player.
Hamilton is a poor man's Greg Little. Though Reese and Ward might have potential, one or both of them belong on the practice squad to develop. Same for any late-round or UDFA WR; unless he is so promising that he needs to be kept on the roster out of genuine fear that another team will claim him, he should be on the practice squad at most.
4) Instead of keeping a sixth receiver, the Bengals could keep an extra player who would be more useful, likely in the front seven of the defense.
From 2013 to 2014, the Bengals defense regressed from being "great" to being about league-average. It was a tale of two extremes in 2014: the team had one of the best secondaries, and one of the worst front sevens. Extra depth at any defensive position, likely in the front seven, would be more useful than a sixth WR.
All in all, it is quite clear that the Bengals should seriously consider keeping only five wide receivers for 2015. Hopefully Mike Brown, Marvin Lewis and Duke Tobin recognize all of these factors as they decide the 53-man roster, and are willing to break the status quo of always keeping six or more wide receivers.