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Bengals Mailbag: Illegal hits, late-round wide receiver options and updates on Reggie Nelson

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We answer some of the burning questions on the minds of Bengals fans, covering many different topics. Free agency, the draft and recent rule changes are the headliners this week.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

One thing that has always impressed me about the Bengals' fan base is their overall football intelligence and ability to have a pulse on the franchise. The wide variety of questions we received for this week's mailbag prove that the Who Dey faithful are keeping aware of the happenings with the Bengals and the game of football.

As is common for this time of year, draft and free agency talk are always at the forefront, but fans also had a couple of different topics for questions this week. We start with one to update the masses on a former Bengals player.

*****

Well, initially, there was little to no word on Nelson in his quest for a good deal in free agency. Age and a playoff ankle injury are the likely culprits for teams being totally hesitant to sign him to this point. Even so, the slow market is a bit surprising for a guy who had eight interceptions in 2015 and made the Pro Bowl just a few months ago.

Tennessee was said to be a team interested in Nelson's services, though they haven't brought him in for a visit and they just signed Rashad Johnson, likely eliminating their interest in Nelson.

When Marvin Lewis spoke this week at the owner's meetings in Florida, he expressed the team's willingness to continue discussions with Nelson. It's obvious at this point that the Bengals are playing hardball and realize they have the leverage in negotiations.

If it's a team-friendly, short-term deal in an effort to continue to groom some of the younger guys on the bottom of the positional depth chart, it makes sense. The more time that passes where Nelson goes unsigned, the higher probability Cincinnati brings him back. That's the current update on Nelson, albeit a quick one. Stay tuned to Cincy Jungle to find out further developing news on him.

*****

Immediate thoughts? It's about time. When the play occurred, it seemed odd that a league and its referees hell-bent on ensuring player safety didn't throw a flag on a play where a defenseless receiver took a hit to the jaw/ear hole area of the helmet, laid motionless on the ground, yet the defense was awarded a fumble and took the Bengals out of field goal range in a game decided by two points.

Shazier

By the letter of the law at the time, I suppose the refs followed the book. But, those who decide to apply the "eye test" every once in a while (AKA those who don't follow rulebooks and/or analytics for every possible situation), know that this was a play that could/should have been called. When looking at the clip, it's close, but Ryan Shazier hits Bernard in the lower right portion of his helmet and facemask first, then into the shoulder afterward. The key part is Shazier's lowering of his head upon contact.

It ended up being a critical play in the Bengals' 18-16 loss to the Steelers in the Wild Card, as it erased points for Cincinnati (they were finally driving and at least had a three-point try, especially if the penalty was called), and the sure-handed Bernard wasn't available late in the game after the would-be game-sealing Vontaze Burfict interception.

Here's the thing, though, as I look at it almost four months after the loss: it also shows the difficulty defenders now have when tackling a ball-carrier. While the Bernard/Shazier play was one that many feel should have been a penalty and has been officially deemed as an illegal hit for 2016 on, it also shows the bang-bang nature of the game and defenders' inability to "pull up" on hits.

In addition to this hit becoming illegal, now grabbing the nameplate of the back of a jersey falls into the "horse collar" personal foul penalty arena. In the very same game, Shawn Williams got called for a personal foul hit on Markus Wheaton that seemed to be more in the shoulder area than in the head. The bottom line is that defenders now can't hit the head, go for the knees or even chase down a runner from behind outside of the collar of the jersey. In short, more of these frustrating calls will be made going forward.

Shawn

Am I glad the league decided a mistake was essentially made on the call on Bernard in the Wild Card game and the rule that was referenced in defending it? Sure. Does it make what happened any better? No--in fact, it might make the pill even tougher to swallow.

I'm all for player safety and for eliminating terrible hits which could shorten seasons, careers and/or quality of life for NFL veterans. The rule change makes me feel better when I unusually place a big part of the blame on officiating for the outcome of a game. My issue is with consistency of calls, who gets them and how often the refs will toss the flags on these new rules.

The game of professional football is changing and while some of those changes are for the better, some deem the changes as the league putting velvet gloves on the physicality of the contests. There are a myriad of emotions to experience with this rule change, and I'm neither ecstatic nor displeased.

*****

I love this question because of how the Bengals make us feel about it. After losing two productive, well-liked receivers in Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones this offseason, most pundits and fans are resigned to the fact that the Bengals are taking a wide receiver early in the draft.

It is a strong possibility, but given their reluctance to spring at an upper-tier free agent, either their own or someone else's, I'm not so sure. Throw in the fact that while they were desperate to find complements to A.J. Green in the early stages of this decade's roster rebuild and only used a third and fifth round pick on guys, and the mid-round guys in 2016 seem to fall in line with their plans.

Even the casual fans know the familiar names linked to Cincinnati in rounds one and two, particularly the regional favorites from Ohio State. Laquon Treadwell (who is likely to go in the top-10), Corey Coleman, Josh Doctson, Michael Thomas, Braxton Miller, and Will Fuller are all names who have been linked to them. They might spring for one of them, but whether they do or don't, another wide receier could be their selection later in the draft.

Those in the Sanu ilk, i.e. those who can do some things on the outside and in the slot, include Miller, Pittsburgh's Tyler Boyd, South Carolina's Pharoh Cooper and Oklahoma's Sterling Shepard all fit the mold. Yet, one who isn't being talked about much is another Rutgers wideout, Leonte Carroo, who might slip because of some off-field issues. Miller also seems to have gone from a fringe first round pick to a project guy who looks to be more of the second to third round kind.

For more of the speedy guys, there are a couple of others who intrigue me. Kolby Listenbee, Doctson's TCU teammate is a guy with track speed, but needs polishing--especially with NFL route trees. Washington's Jaydon Mickens is another guy who could be had late and brings savvy route-running skills. I've mentioned him after covering him in-person at the NFLPA Bowl, too. Charone Peake of Clemson is another high potential/low college production guy I have my eye on as well.

Regardless of if the Bengals sign a veteran wideout or not, I still think they take two receivers in this year's draft. A lot of folks, myself included, like the potential of the trio of Mario Alford, Jake Kumerow and James Wright, but we're talking about three players who have a combined six NFL catches for 116 yards. Granted, rookies are coming in fresh, but talent is needed to replenish the position after Sanu and Jones left.

Don't forget, you can send us your questions every week via Twitter or email!