It's been a roller coaster of a few days of free agency for the Cincinnati Bengals, which is against the norm of how they usually work in March. But, as we have said before, 2016 wasn't going to be the regular operating procedure for the club because of the 13 unsigned players who entered the market Wednesday.
To date, the Bengals were able to retain four of those 13 players in safety George Iloka, linebacker Vincent Rey, cornerback Adam Jones and offensive tackle Eric Winston. They've also lost three other starters/rotational players in Emmanuel Lamur, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. The latter two departures have left a major hole in their respective position group, and the bulk of our mailbag questions this week have surround the next steps for the Bengals there.
A couple questions we received this week focused on draft options, now that both Sanu and Jones have left the group:
I thought the Bengals' free agency approach this year should have been on the offense to try and keep the group together as much as possible. Quarterback Andy Dalton has blossomed in his five seasons, with the bulk of his growth coming from 2012 on when Sanu and Jones joined A.J. Green in the group. Losing two of the top three players at that group hurts, and now Dalton will have to build a similar kind of rapport with other receivers after also losing his offensive coordinator, who orchestrated the best season of No. 14's career.
With Sanu now on the Falcons and Jones with the Lions, besides A.J. Green, Brandon Tate as the elder statesman in the group, the 4th or 5th receiver in the pecking order in 2015. In a recent opinion post I penned for Cincy Jungle, I noted my fear of the Bengals sitting idly by in free agency as many of their quality players bolt elsewhere. Receiver was the biggest fear for me as NFL's version of March Madness ensued.
In short, they need to re-stock the cabinet.
In terms of the draft and getting a wide receiver, I'd definitely look in the first three rounds to supplement the group. I think the Bengals need an exciting starter opposite Green once again a la Jones, as well as a chain-moving slot option that Sanu often provided the offense. Both could be had at various points in the draft. Here are some outside, inside options in the draft, where they might be available, as well as guys who can do a little bit of both in the early rounds.
Corey Coleman, Baylor, Round 1: Slated to go sometime in the late first round, Coleman is a deep threat and a guy who can take short passes long distances. He also has kick return ability (17 returns for a 28.4 yards-per-return average), and great feet when running routes. His knocks are his size (5'11, 194 pounds) and the limited amount of route concepts he ran at Baylor:
Josh Doctson, TCU, Round 1-2: There usually gets to be a run on receivers around the late first round, so we expect to see Doctson and Coleman to start to be considered around that point. Dotson might be more of the Bengals' type, given his size (6'2", 202 pounds), work ethic, production and reputation. Dane Brugler of CBS Sports notes a hesitancy of Doctson to go across the middle and make tough catches, but he high-points the ball well and boxes out defenders pretty often.
Will Fuller, Notre Dame, Round 1-2: Fuller was once seen as a round two lock, but his fast 40-time at the Combine (4.32) may have raised his stock to a fringe first round player. I seen him as a bit of a one-trick pony as a vertical threat, which could be fine for the Bengals with Green in their possession. He's not as big as Pittsburgh's Martavis Bryant, but the skill sets are similar.
Michael Thomas, Ohio State, Round 2: The local fan base would love to see Thomas land in stripes, and he just might be their guy, based on his size (6'3", 212 pounds) and draft placement. He can do a little bit of everything, but some of the finer nuances NFL receivers need to learn will need polishing. Still, a 6'4" Green on one side and a 6'3" Thomas on the other? Whoa.
Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma, Round 3: The little guy from Oklahoma almost seems bred as an NFL slot receiver. He should be productive at the next level, particularly if utilized correctly, but his size (5'10", 194 pounds) will be a concern. Shepard isn't a burner, but is a savvy player who will work the sticks.
Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina, Round 2-3: There have been comparisons to Randall Cobb with Cooper, but I'm not sure he's quite that athletic. While I could put him in the "both" category, I still think he's a versatile guy like Cobb or Sanu who can run the inside routes and work various parts of the field.
Jaydon Mickens, Washington, Round 5-6: I have to throw this guy in here even though he's slotted as a late pick, as I think he could be a steal late in the draft as a slot guy. I saw him up close and personal at the NFLPA Bowl and he was one of the best players at the game. He might be one of those late-bloomer guys, who just needs the right system, a decent quarterback and a chance. A lack of production in college has him down the pecking order a bit, though not all of that was his fault.
Guys Who Can Do Both:
Braxton Miller, Ohio State, Round 2: Some like him as a first round prospect, but he's way too raw for me to like him that early. He's developing his kick return game, as pro scouts think he can do it without any college experience, but he's a guy who could do some work in the slot and on the outside. He did have a nice showing at his Pro Day on Friday, though.
Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh, Rounds 2-3: In my first mock draft for the team, I had the Bengals taking Boyd in the third round. It's probably the latest he'll go, but a poor Combine showing and some off-field baggage from a while ago might have him slip out of the second round. At Pitt, Boyd did a little bit of everything and seems to be able to work inside and out as a receiver.
Leonte Carroo, Rutgers, Rounds 3-4: Carroo has big play ability, as evidenced by his 20.7 yards-per-catch average in 2015, but he also can do some things as a receiver inside. He isn't the tallest or most explosive guy, but he knows how to make plays.
My preferences at the moment would be either Doctson in round one, and Thomas or Boyd in round two. These are guys who can likely step in and be effective players from the get-go, which is needed because of the current voids.
Y'all think we can get 2 Wr in the draft ? https://t.co/rJyuDqAdOu— Christian No Grey (@Call_Me_Flash) March 11, 2016
I won't spend a ton of time on this because I just laid out who the varying wide receivers are through the first few rounds of the draft, but two wide receivers is possible for the Bengals in this year's haul. After all, they grabbed two who became very effective for them in their 2012 NFL Draft class in Sanu (third round) and Jones (fifth round).
One reason they might is because of their reluctance to spend big money in free agency. And, with most of the bigger-name guys already being picked off of free agency (including Sanu and Jones), they might pursue more options in the draft to develop. It's just risky to rely on young, unproven players with high-profile roles and expect the same results Sanu and/or Jones gave the Bengals over the past few seasons.
If the focus for the Bengals is two wide receivers in the draft, I wouldn't expect two early ones, unless someone totally falls in their lap in the middle rounds. But, probably one in the first two rounds and another slot-ish guy later on is probably a safe bet. Take a look at some of the names in the question I answered above for some references.
@CincyJungle Should the Bengals try to sign Nate Washington?— noah phillips (@noahphillips114) March 11, 2016
No, they shouldn't. Washington will be 33 years old when the season begins and only one of his 10 pro seasons have netted him 1,000 yards or more, and that was five seasons ago. While the Bengals might not need gaudy numbers opposite of Green, they will need a player who, at a minimum, will command a good amount of respect to pull attention away from Green like we saw last year.
I give credit to Washington who played well in Houston after quarterback issues frustrated the entire team all season, but his best football is definitely behind him. Plus, if Green were to miss any amount of time, the Bengals would need someone they feel can step up and continue to make plays for the offense. Washington could make some, but probably nothing truly consistent and it would be nothing more than a band-aid signing.
If they're going to look in free agency, I'd look first to Reuben Randle, who appears to be the best option left out there. He'll be just 25 years old when the season begins and has had some production. If he can stay healthy, I think he'd pair up well opposite of Green.
Other guys I would like the Bengals kick the tires on is Oakland's Rod Streater, the Jets' Jeremy Kerley, recently-released speedster Mike Wallace, who wouldn't count against the team's beloved compensatory pick formula, or former Raven Marlon Brown. A report had the Bengals interested in another Raiders wideout, Andre Holmes, but I'm not sure he's a true No. 2 NFL wideout and might be simple Traning Camp competition.
Randle, Wallace, Kerley and Brown particularly interest me. Wallace could experience a nice career renaissance opposite a player like Green, and with Tyler Eifert in the mix, defenses might overlook him because of his recent struggles. Kelley could be a nice slot weapon, while Brown would be one of those high upside/bust type of signings. After catching seven touchdowns as a rookie, a variety of issues have forced Brown's stats downward the past two seasons. I already talked briefly about Randle, who I think is the safest of the group.
That's where I'd look before thinking about Washington, in terms of veterans. I still think we'll hear a receiver's name called early by the Bengals at the end of April.