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Bengals wide receiver assessment heading into 2017 offseason

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Do the Bengals need to invest a high pick in the draft at wide receiver, or will re-signing LaFell and added experience across the board, cure the ailments from last year’s receiver unit?

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When free agency arrived last offseason, the Cincinnati Bengals appeared confident the team would be able to retain one of their two big impending wide receiver free agents. They made a solid offer to Marvin Jones, but he eschewed that contract for an opportunity to be “the guy” with the Detroit Lions.

Even though new faces stepped up as best they could in 2016, the rapport that had been built between Andy Dalton, Jones and Mohamed Sanu since 2012 was definitely missed last season. The issues became especially glaring when A.J. Green went down with a hamstring injury in Week 11 against the Bills.

Muddying the waters even further for the Bengals’ offense transitioning from Hue Jackson to Ken Zampese at offensive coordinator. Aside from the great relationship Dalton had with his receivers, all of his weapons were available at his disposal in 2015, which helped Jackson get uber-creative with his scheme before he left for the head coaching gig with the Browns. It all led to Dalton having an MVP-like campaign before a thumb injury ended his season.

Cincinnati’s quarterback worked through many issues in 2016, ranging from his new weapons not consistently getting open, to his once-proud offensive line taking a major step back and underperforming. Dalton still performed admirably, throwing 18 touchdowns against just eight interceptions, but the explosiveness from the group we witnessed in the prior year was missing.

On this week’s Orange and Black Insider, Scott Schultze and I continued assessing the Bengals’ position groups heading into 2017. We focused in on Cincinnati’s offense, with wide receiver being one of our focal points. Was 2016 just a blip in the radar for the Bengals’ offense in the wake of so much transition, or did it point to glaring deficiencies—especially when Green was out of the lineup?

Experience and acclimation

The Bengals employed four new players in their receiver rotation last year. Green and James Wright (a wet-behind-the-ears guy, himself) were the only players among the unit who spent time with the Bengals, which could explain many of the issues. Three of the four new faces were rookies (Alex Erickson, Tyler Boyd and Cody Core), cementing the idea that just more experience and chemistry may cure what ails the team.

Brandon LaFell stepped up nicely for the team as a No. 2 option, and when Green went down for essentially the final seven games, the former Patriot filled in as well as could have been expected. But his contract status (he’s set to be a free agent) and age (30) bring questions going forward. After LaFell had the second-best year in his career, might he actually be a solid long-term option in the Bengals’ system in 2017 and beyond?

Experience and time in the system are critical for all players, but, even if LaFell is back with the group next season, is the amassed talent enough for a playoff push in 2017? Defensive end and linebacker seem to be more pressing needs, but if a top talent receiver falls to the Bengals in the early rounds, Cincinnati might be hard-pressed to pass up on the opportunity in this year’s NFL Draft. A speedster to add into the group is also something the Bengals should seek out in the Draft, regardless of whether LaFell stays or goes.

Zampese’s first year and dealing with major injuries:

For those who want the Bengals to play it conservative with offseason wide receiver acquisitions this year, consider the amount of time missed by Green and tight end Tyler Eifert in 2016 from injuries. Green is a top NFL talent at the receiver spot, as is Eifert at tight end, but their recent health issues have to call the status of their position groups into question.

Was 2016 an anomaly with Green and Eifert’s injuries, or should the team start to have contingency plans at the positions in case this becomes a troubling trend? Green has been relatively durable throughout his career, but Eifert has been quite injury-prone.

On one hand, the idea of Green paired up with Clemson’s Mike Williams or Western Michigan’s Corey Davis seems like a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses and dream for Bengals fans. However, most successful NFL franchises build from the inside (quarterback and in the trenches) out (skill positions), as opposed to having a ton of exciting receivers.

Is the formula to the Bengals’ 2017 offensive success simply in utilizing patience with three of last year’s rookies acclimating to Zampese’s scheme, as he feels his way through his second year as an offensive coordinator? Or, do the Bengals need to stack the offense as the Falcons did in their quest to a Super Bowl LI appearance?

You can watch the Orange and Black Insider live every week here at Cincy Jungle or on our YouTube channel. If you’re unable to join us live, you can catch our content on iTunes and SoundCloud, as well as here at CJ. We’re also reachable for fan questions and feedback on Twitter @BengalsOBI or via email at theobinsider@gmail.com.