Part of the reason some analysts believe the Bengals will take a step back in 2016 is because of the roster upheaval they experienced this offseason—particularly on offense. Two of their top three wide receivers from 2015 moved on in free agency, while the bottom half of the position group is in flux, and the tight ends have experienced injuries.
The good news regarding the inexperience at both positions is that some of the high-ceiling players on offense are stepping up. In recent practices and in the first preseason game of 2016, young players have been making plays to instill confidence in the team.
The top two quarterbacks on the roster, Andy Dalton and AJ McCarron, have taken notice of the quick progress of those players as they fight for final roster spots.
“He’s done a lot of really good things,” Dalton said of rookie second round pick, Tyler Boyd. “We’ve been really impressed with what he’s been able to do. He’s been making good catches like that and running good routes, so I was happy for him to make that play.”
Of course, Dalton was referring to Boyd’s 40-yard reception from McCarron in Friday’s game against the Vikings. Boyd has been flashing in training camp, but obviously in-game production is another thing. Ironically, being able to rein in the deep ball was a supposed weakness of Boyd coming out of the University of Pittsburgh, yet the big play (and his only catch of the night) set up a second quarter touchdown.
“Yeah, he’s talented. He can do a lot of things, and he made a big play on the over-the-shoulder ball, and AJ (McCarron) made a really good throw,” Dalton continued to say.
Meanwhile, McCarron corroborated Dalton’s sentiments on Boyd, as he was the one who delivered a great pass. “He did a great job of tracking the ball and making a good play on it. I just liked him, liked my matchup and took it. That’s what he does – he makes plays.”
The star of the night was a bit unexpected, as undrafted rookie free agent Alex Erickson scored the team’s only two touchdowns in the game. One was on special teams late in the fourth quarter, but McCarron threw him a pass in the second quarter to tie the game up, 7-7.
“I’ll tell you what – the game’s not too big for him. The moment’s not too big and he’s a hell of a player. He really is,” McCarron said. “He’s definitely going to be able to play a lot and make a lot of big plays.”
And though Dalton probably hasn’t had a ton of reps with Erickson in practices, he was still excited for the undrafted rookie free agent and his big night.
“It’s great for a guy like that who has an opportunity to really prove what he can do, and he made the most of it. To catch a touchdown and return the punt for a touchdown was huge. I’m really happy for him.”
Even though the spotlight ended up being mostly on Boyd and Erickson, many other young receivers stepped up on Friday night. In fact, 14 Bengals receivers logged a reception in the preseason opener, marking the overall depth and competition in this year’s camp.
Rashaun Simonise had a 47-yard reception, while sixth-round pick Cody Core had three catches for 33 yards and second-year man Mario Alford had nice plays as a receiver and return man. Even though the team lost, quite a few of the positives taken away came from receiver performances—which is one of the areas in which the Bengals undoubtedly wanted to see progress.
While the team is 0-1 this preseason, the early chemistry that has seemed to have been built between the quarterbacks and young receivers is something to bring a sigh of relief to the staff and fans for the regular season. The continuation of the comfortability has to be a high priority as the regular season opener looms in less than one month.