When a team goes to the playoffs four consecutive years, it's hard to imagine a rookie seventh-round pick making much of an impact, much less the final roster. Still, the Cincinnati Bengals have struck gold with picks in that round, most notably T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Jonathan Fanene in the Marvin Lewis era.
Mario Alford comes out of West Virginia with the label of "speedy playmaker". On offense, Alford had 65 catches, with 11 of them going for touchdowns in 2014. He was also lethal in the kickoff return game, given his two scores in that realm as well. So, why did he fall all the way to the seventh?
Aside from some needed polishing as a receiver, Alford also stands at a very slight 5'8", 180 pounds. That isn't exactly ideal NFL size for a receiver, but that might not end up mattering much if NFL defenders aren't able to catch up to him. Alford has a way to climb in and make this team, and his impact could be in an area where fans are craving big plays --deep throws and special teams.
Why Alford Makes The List:
Big Special Teams Plays in 2014 Should Wake the Coaches Up: Brandon Tate has been the tortoise to Adam Jones' hare. Since 2011, Tate has been a mainstay on both kick and punt returns for the Bengals, much to the chagrin of fans. The former Patriot has had just one punt return touchdown in his four seasons in Cincinnati, and though Jones only has had one special teams score of his own, "Pacman" has had many other near-scores and big returns.
If the Bengals want to see what this facet did for their team, they can look at a couple of games last season where Jones was given a return opportunity. Spectacular plays in the return game from Jones were key components to five Bengals victories and one tie last season (Carolina, Baltimore, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Houston and Denver). The 97-yarder against the Panthers and the big plays against the Broncos surely allowed Cincinnati to get out of the "L" column. It's yet to be seen if Alford can translate that same ability from college to pros, but it sounds promising.
A More All-Around Effective Weapon Than Tate: It would seem that a big camp battle this year is between Alford and Tate, with only one likely to make the final roster. Though he has received his fair share of scorn, Tate deserves credit for doing everything the coaches ask of him. When a receiver goes down, Tate has filled in along with the return duties. The problem? Tate has just two touchdowns and 404 yards in four seasons as a Bengals receiver.
If Alford were to make the team, he'd be a 4th or 5th wideout on this roster at best, but so was Andrew Hawkins, right? Not saying they are clones, but you have to note the similarities. Hawkins had a bit more shiftiness and wiggle, but Alford has more straight-line speed. With the injuries the Bengals sustained to the receiver corps last season, wouldn't having "Baby Hawk" still around have been nice?
Say that Hue Jackson can create a niche for him with simple bubble screens and "go-routes", Alford could be effective, while also not having the rookie's head spin with too many plays to remember. Throw in a few touches on special teams and it sounds fun.
This may very well end up being a swing-for-the-fences type of prediction, akin to a few guys who made this list last season. Lewis and his staff have shown a penchant for favoring familiar players who they trust, even if it means a slight decrease in talent. Throw in some perceived reluctance to play rookies early on and you might consider Alford's chances of making this team pretty bleak.
Still, "change" has been the team's mantra this offseason, be it with obvious or not-so-obvious maneuvering to achieve that goal. Darrin Simmons has coached a solid special teams unit for Cincinnati the past few seasons, so why not take a gamble on a guy with upside? As Lewis noted on Hard Knocks a few years ago about other players, it's going to take preseason in-game wowing by Alford to make his case. Jackson will also have to be in Alford's corner to show he has a plan on how to utilize Alford in the offense.
We try not to get too excited with seventh round picks, but Alford has intrigue written all over him. You can't coach speed -- Alford most definitely has it and the team can always use that.