After losing wide receivers Marvin Jones Jr. and Mohamed Sanu in free agency it was widely assumed the Bengals would sign a low-profile free agent and address the position later, in the draft. Cincinnati brought in Brandon LaFell after being cut by the Patriots, a player who had a bad 2015 season but still has some promise.
LaFell was clearly not the same player he was in 2014 after starting last year on the PUP list with a foot injury. He played catch up the rest of the season and eventually his role on the Patriots diminished. Those kinds of ailments are tricky, and a full year removed from the injury could do him very good, as was the case with Jones in Cincinnati. The Patriots could also know something we don't, leading to letting him go with one more year remaining on his contract.
Nonetheless the former Panther and Patriot can do some of the things both Jones and Sanu did for the Bengals in recent seasons. Looking at the tape from four of his games - against the Jets in his return, the Redskins, Broncos in terrible weather conditions and the Texans - LaFell stands out as a player who can get open down the field and is also comfortable in the slot.
He is not particularly fast but he attacks the open space between his man and the safety and has a good technique, with some pretty nice double moves along the way. He would run many posts or go routes and plenty of times he was wide open.
Mind you, those weren't the best weather conditions, but you can also see drops were a huge issue with LaFell last year. For all the good moves he made, he killed a play for his team, and after dropping a whooping six passes against the Jets in his first game back, he didn't improve much.
Is he another Greg Little? LaFell is better than the former Browns and Bengals receiver, and even if he doesn't have great hands most of his drops were mental lapses; which is still not ideal, but better than having stone hands.
He could be frustrating to watch because of that ability to get open, only to drop the football.
He saw fairly tough competition in 2015 like Darrelle Revis, Aqib Talib, Johnathan Joseph and Chris Harris Jr. and he always managed to find success here and there.
LaFell is a big and physical receiver with another good skill. He can get yards after the catch and for his career has an average of almost 14 yards per reception, including a year when he averaged 17 yards per reception with the Panthers.
I didn't see his willingness to block for his teammates, though, and I did see some plays where he didn't even engage with his man; hopefully that isn't due to a lack of effort on his part.
LaFell can play the slot and brings a big target for quarterback Andy Dalton inside, even though he doesn't use his frame as well as you'd like for a 6-2 wide receiver.
I think there is still enough in him to be a valuable player for the Bengals, and he's clearly a better solution to their lack of depth than bringing in somebody like Little. LaFell can still do this.
He needs some cushion to work with, as he is not either fast or quick and can't break free against press coverage most of the time. But LaFell has good feet and had an elite three cone of 6.81, which shows on film.
Overall, LaFell can help replace Sanu and Jones but clearly not on his own. He can spread the field and also give you good yards on smoke screens, and is another big body in the red zone even if he failed to hit paydirt in 2015. He is not as talented as Jones nor Sanu, but LaFell is a low-risk high-floor signing that could pay off down the road for the Bengals, and also comes with a Super Bowl ring and a great performance against the Seahawks' defense in that Super Bowl victory.