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Bengals roster battles 2016: Wide receiver looks to be battle of summer

A.J. Green has the top receiver spot, but just about every other spot is very much up for grabs with Jones and Sanu now gone.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals have a lot of questions surrounding the wide receiver position heading into training camp.

That's because the team was unable to re-sign Marvin Jones this offseason as he left to become the top receiver in Detroit. You can't really blame him with A.J. Green getting the bulk of the targets in Cincinnati. While Jones never put up No. 1 receiver numbers, he was frequently making big plays when targeted and helped keep defenses from double-teaming Green as frequently as could have been the case.

Then came the departure of slot receiver Mohamed Sanu, who never did become a featured weapon in this offense with guys like Green, Jones and Tyler  Eifert ahead of him on the depth chart. That's why it was surprising when Sanu left to sign a massive deal with the Falcons this offseason, leaving the Bengals without two of their top three receivers heading into 2016.

For those reasons, the receiver position remains with a lot of unanswered questions, not to mention pretty much every spot after Green's up for grabs. For now, the second boundary receiver role figures to go to veteran Brandon LaFell, who was signed this offseason to take on that spot vacated by Jones.

LaFell provides the rare combination of significant experience in both the slot and on the boundary while having a Super Bowl ring to his name. He was a major player in the Patriots' run at Super Bowl XLIX while playing primarily on the boundary, where he spent most of his Patriots career after a productive run with the Panthers as a slot and boundary receiver.

LaFell looked like a star with the Patriots during his 74-catch, 953-yard and seven-score season in 2014, but a foot injury derailed LaFell's 2015 season, causing him to miss the offseason training period and spend the first half of the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list.

LaFell played in just 11 games while making 37 catches for 515 yards in 2015. He was later released after the season concluded and signed a one-year deal with the Bengals for $2.5 million. He figures to win that second boundary spot, but don't count out second-round rookie Tyler Boyd to compete for that role either.

While Boyd projects as a slot receiver in the NFL, he showed he could do plenty of damage on the boundary during his time at Pitt. He's a jack of all trades but master of none, something that should fit well with a Bengals team in need of help all around.

Perhaps the Bengals will operate more effectively with Boyd on the boundary and LaFell in the slot. After LaFell is turning 30 this November, and it's easier to get open from the slot than it is on the boundary. LaFell has also said the receiver-needy Bengals want to play him all over the field, including the slot.

Whatever happens, I think we should expect to see both receivers on the boundary and slot this season, not to mention those guys figure to be the No. 2 and 3 receivers in this offense.

As for the rest of the wide receiver roster, that's a much harder area to project. The slight favorite to be the No. 4 receiver is probably Brandon Tate, at least when training camp opens. While that may make Bengals fans cringe, he knows this offense better than any receiver not named A.J. Green.

And Tate showed he can be a deep-threat receiver last year with his 55-yard bomb vs the Chiefs, not to mention a 50-yard grab vs the Falcons in 2014. He deserves to open camp as the No. 4 guy, but whether he keeps that role once the regular season begins is a far different point of discussion.

Another pass-catcher with plenty of experience is Rex Burkhead. Though he's still listed as a running back, Burkhead was more productive as a receiver last year. Burkhead finished 2014 with just seven grabs for 79 yards and nine rushes for 27 yards and one score.

Then in 2015, Burkhead went on to get more playing time at receiver, but caught just 10 passes on 15 targets for 94 yards and one score. Still, with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard getting most of the running back snaps, Burkhead is best served to play more at receiver.

That's where there's a lot more playing time to be had for him. But don't expect Burkhead to be listed as a receiver, and do expect the Bengals to keep six to seven true receivers entering the regular season.

One young receiver looking to make some noise after rarely playing in 2015 is Mario Alford. The former Mountaineer caught the Bengals' attention with his blistering 4.27 in the 40-yard dash during the 2015 pre-draft process. As you can imagine, 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. But with the Bengals deep at receiver, Alford saw action in just one game as a rookie as he was a non-factor the whole year.

There's no question Alford is a big unknown at this point, though the chance take on a big role in the offense is there for the taking. He just has to prove his worth, reach out and grab what's his for the taking.

There is also sixth-round rookie Cody Core. A talented receiver with good potential, Core is still learning the receiver position after getting just two years working there full time in college. Once Core became a full-time receiver, he had to watch LaQuon Treadwell get most of the targets in the Ole Miss offense.

That's why Core is one of the most intriguing players to watch in camp and the preseason, but someone with a lot to prove. He's probably bound for a redshirt season, but don't be surprised if he ends up making some noise as the regular season rolls on.

One guy poised for a bounceback 2016 season is James Wright who has spent much of the past two seasons on the mend. Wright originally suffered a PCL injury that prematurely ended his 2014 season. It occurred in Week 13 against the Buccaneers, a game in which Wright caught three receptions for 59 yards (19.7 average) with a long of 30.

Then his 2015 ended after he ended up having microfracture surgery due to the knee never fully recovering. That's led to him being sidelined for much of the 2016 offseason, but he does appear close to making his full return after practicing in a limited role during mandatory minicamp. Having missed so much time, it's hard to see Wright making a big impact this year, but he's fully capable of being the No. 5 or 6 receiver and contributing on special teams.

And don't sleep on Jake Kumerow emerging this year. He did well in training camp last year before latching onto the practice squad, where he spent the entire season after going undrafted out of Division III's Wisconsin-Whitewater. He's continued to make noise in OTAs this offseason, and he'll be a key name to watch in the preseason this year.

There's also two undrafted receivers to keep an eye on his year. Former Toledo star Alonzo Russell had a great career with the Rockets, but went undrafted and quickly signed with the Bengals. There's also Alex Erickson, a former walk-on at Wisconsin, who emerged as the top wideout for the Badgers the past two seasons.

Both guys have the talent and ability to make the Bengals' 53-man roster, but the practice squad looks more likely for each this year. Still, with so much left undecided for the Bengals' wide receiver position, the jobs will really be anyone's for the taking.

We should expect Green, Boyd and LaFell to be the top three receivers, but after that, at this point, all we can do is guess. That makes this easily the most interesting position to watch for over the next three months before the regular season opens in September.