Bengals wide receivers coach James Urban is used to winning. Maybe not in the playoffs, but this is the first time he won’t be heading to the postseason since joining the Bengals in 2011. And before getting hired in Cincinnati prior to A.J. Green’s rookie year, Urban spent seven years with the Eagles, with whom he made the playoffs in all but two seasons.
Many Bengals players, like Urban, are also missing the playoffs for the first time during their time in Cincinnati. And even though every postseason trip for Cincinnati in the last six years has been a one-and-done appearance, there’s certainly a psychological effect of working so hard to see the season end in Week 17 and not even have the chance to win in the playoffs.
“The first thing I do is take real critical look at the personnel at my position,” Urban says. “Where they improved. Where they need to improve. What they’re good at. What they need to get better at. We do it quite a bit before the season, but this is the first time everyone in the building hears what your thoughts are at the position at the end of the year.”
Urban’s receivers had an interesting year. A.J. Green got off to his best start to a season but then an untimely injury forced him out of the lineup and caused young receivers to need to step up in his place. Tyler Boyd caught more passes than any Bengals rookie receiver since Green, and Cody Core progressed nicely as the season went on. There’s a lot to look forward to when it comes to Boyd and Core. Undrafted rookie Alex Erickson also had a few nice catches and looks to make a bigger impact in the passing game next season after a great first season as the Bengals’ lead kick and punt returner.
As far as improvements go, Urban would be wise to advocate for a speedster to join the Bengals’ receiver group this season. In that regard, Hobson wrote the following, which is interesting to see from a team insider:
The need for a take-off-the-top speed receiver to pair with A.J. Green is listed as an important, if not high, priority.
While newcomer Brandon LaFell was a nice complement to Green, defenses weren’t as threatened by him as they were Marvin Jones when he was the Bengals’ No. 2 receiver.
“In this league if you stay status quo, you get passed fast,” Urban told Hobson regarding the need to continue to improve next season.
As far as approaching the draft, Urban has an interesting way to evaluate talent.
“When I start looking at the guys in the draft, my mindset is I ask myself, ‘Is this guy better than A.J. Green?’ We may or may not get that guy, but that’s where you have to start. I haven’t seen that guy yet, but that’s where you have to start,” Urban said.
It’s not easy to find someone with talent that surpasses Green’s and not something the Bengals will likely achieve in the 2017 NFL Draft, but, it’s a good barometer for how to analyze a receiver prospect.
Per Hobson, the Bengals do want to re-sign LaFell. And a big part of why is his can-do attitude. On a day when Green was hurt and James Wright was dealing with his knee injury, LaFell was also banged up with a bruised heel and knee. Urban thought he'd be going into that day's practice with just rookies and practice squad guys to work with, but when he showed up, LaFell was ready to go.
“I said, ‘Hey Joe (many on the team call LaFell JoJo), what are you doing?” Urban said. “He says, ‘These guys can’t do it all themselves. I’ve got to practice today.’ But I said, ‘You could hardly walk.’ He said, ‘I’ll be alright,’ and he made it through practice. He gave us a great look. All he cares about is winning games. Whether it’s going inside the tight end to block the safety or with the ball in his hands all he cares about is winning.”
That kind of attitude is something the Bengals can always use and LaFell did as well as anyone could have expected in his first year in Cincinnati. LaFell caught 64 passes for 862 yards and 6 touchdowns. 42 of his catches went for first downs. Those are numbers the Bengals weren’t necessarily planning on him achieving as he netted an extra $500,000 in incentives this year due to meeting goals the team set for him, including grabbing 60 catches and yielding 800 yards.
With a year of experience in the books for the rookies, Green healthy and LaFell potentially returning for a second year in Cincinnati, expect the Bengals’ receiver unit to improve next season. Hopefully, instead of feeling awful at home, Urban will be game planning and preparing for the Bengals to play in Round 2 of the playoffs at this time next year.