For those who have been reading our series of Bengals who have something to prove in 2016, every player we have listed so far was on the Bengals' roster last year. Part of that has to do with the team's preference to develop talent through the draft, while shying away from big free agency signings, but other factors also contribute. Cincinnati only made a couple of outside free agency signings this spring, but the signings have big roles to fill this year.
Brandon LaFell has had an NFL career filled with ups and downs since coming into the league as a second round selection with the Panthers in 2010. The apex of it was in 2014 with the Patriots, but the low-point very well could have been last season. Cincinnati would love to get a season out of him akin to two years ago, but in truth, somewhere in between the two diametric opposites might suffice.
Why he makes the list:
Big Shoes to Fill: We've said it ad nauseam this offseason, but the Bengals need to find a way to get production from players replacing Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Most believed Cincinnati would be fine because of Tyler Eifert's emergence last year, but a recent surprising foot procedure has him possibly missing the first couple of games of the regular season, so LaFell's presence brings more importance--especially early in the year. He has the size and recent production in another quality offense in New England, so the "low-risk, high-reward" tag for Cincinnati has positive potential.
Redeeming Himself: For all of the things LaFell has to prove to the Bengals and the rest of the NFL, the veteran might have to prove the most to himself. His production was mediocre but steady in Carolina, where he averaged nearly 42 catches, 597 yards and over three touchdowns per year. The statistical outliers, in both the positive and negative spectrums, were with the Patriots. With another rookie wideout on board, the Bengals likely want more than the Laveranues Coles-like averages LaFell displayed in his first four years in 2016.
What he needs to prove:
Red Zone Threat: LaFell has had some high yards-per-catch averages in his career, but he doesn't need to be the speedster Jones was for the Bengals. LaFell has three inches of height on Jones, so while he has some decent long speed, the veteran free agent could do some damage in the short areas of the field with his stature. Utilizing LaFell, the 6'4" A.J. Green, and the 6'6" Eifert all in a red zone package could be lethal to opposing offenses.
Play his own Game: Because of the losses at wide receiver this offseason, people will automatically want LaFell to exude the big-play capability of Jones or the versatility of Sanu, but he needs to find his own niche in the offense catering to his skill set. Though it's not like the Bengals lost Green this offseason, they did lose two producers, but LaFell simply can't press and put too many expectations on himself to satisfy the team and its fan base. If he relaxes and does his thing, the potential for something more closely resembling his 2014 campaign is higher.