The Cincinnati Bengals have been one of the stingiest teams you'll find when it comes to playing rookies, especially on the offensive side of the ball. To be fair, Cincinnati features a wealth of talent and depth across their roster, which makes it hard for first-year players to come in and even sniff the field.
That was the case this past season with wide receiver Mario Alford. With the Bengals' final pick in the 2015 NFL draft, No. 238 overall, they took Alford out of West Virginia University after a standout career with the Mountaineers.
Though it came in Round 7, Alford was viewed as someone who could make as big of an impact in Cincinnati as any rookie this year. Not only does he possess the kind of blazing speed the Bengals need more of, but he was thought to be a dynamic returner who could unseat Brandon Tate as the team's primary return man.
Alford caught the Bengals' attention with his blistering 4.27 in the 40-yard dash. The 5'8", 180-pound ball of fire caught 65 passes for 945 yards and a Big 12-leading 11 scores in his senior season. He also returned 37 kickoffs for 972 yards, with a 26.3 yard/return average and two touchdowns, including one vs No. 2 Alabama:
Alford's biggest strength is something that's been missing in the Bengals' offense, and that's speed. He was viewed as a guy who could take the top off of a defense and not allow defensive coordinators to stack the box while he is on the field.
Adding to that, Alford was someone who could catch an occasional pitch out of the backfield and make guys miss en route to big gains on the ground.
That was Alford's longest play from scrimmage in the preseason, a 23-yard scamper vs the New York Giants. He finished the preseason with three rushes for 29 yards and three catches for 39 yards. It was becoming clear that Alford was facing an uphill battle just to make the roster with Tate, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones, A.J. Green and even Greg Little ahead of him, but the rookie would do just enough to crack the 53-man roster as the seventh receiver.
But even though Little would later be cut, Alford saw action in just one game as a rookie. It came against the Cleveland Browns, a game that was a blowout and allowed him to get playing time late and catch his first and only NFL pass from AJ McCarron.
That was all Alford did as a rookie. He didn't even as so much as return a punt or kickoff as the Bengals gave all of those snaps to Tate and Adam Jones. That's left Alford being a relative unknown heading into the offseason, but he may ultimately have a major part to play in the Bengals' plans for free agency.
With Tate, Sanu and Marvin Jones all being free agents in addition to Adam Jones possibly leaving in free agency, too, Alford could very easily go from benchwarmer as a rookie to being a starter in his sophomore campaign. At the very least, Alford looks to be in line for a big role on special teams if both Tate and Adam Jones aren't brought back.
On offense, it's far too early to tell if Alford can be as effective as either Sanu or Marvin Jones were. Then again, with running back Giovani Bernard and tight end Tyler Eifert being such big threats in the passing game, Sanu caught just 33 passes for 394 yards and no passing touchdowns.
It's fair to think Alford could do that even if he was getting the number of snaps Sanu or even Jones got this season. The third and fourth receivers in this offense just aren't asked to do a lot, so Alford could easily rise up to that fifth, fourth or even third receiver spot in the near future.
I do expect the Bengals to make a strong push this offseason to re-sign Sanu, Marvin Jones, Adam Jones and yes, even Tate, which will put Alford in a battle with guys like Jake Kumerow and James Wright for the final receiver spots on next year's roster.
That said, I do think at least one of the aforementioned free agents gets away this offseason, making it easier for Alford to earn a spot on next year's roster as either a pass-catcher or return man.
It was a somewhat disappointing season for the rookie wide receiver, but only because he wasn't given the opportunities to show what he can do. Will that change in 2016?