The Bengals’ wide receiver position went through a major overhaul in 2016. The unit saw Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu leave in free agency for the Lions and Falcons, respectively. The team also chose to part ways with Brandon Tate and Mario Alford before the season began, confirming that the only returning members of the Bengals’ 2015 receiving corps would be A.J. Green and James Wright. And, Wright spent all of 2015 on Injured Reserve.
The Bengals filled the open spots by signing Brandon LaFell following his release from the New England Patriots, selecting Tyler Boyd and Cody Core in the 2016 NFL Draft, and signing Alex Erickson as a college free agent after the draft.
For the most part, each receiver played their role well and proved their worth throughout the course of the season. However, with potentially 11 draft picks and the No. 9 overall pick, the Bengals could easily boost this position even more by selecting one of Mel Kiper’s top 10 receivers in this year’s draft. All of these players have the potential to make a huge impact on offense.
*1. Mike Williams (Clemson)
If you’re looking for a natural pass catcher whose instincts alone allow him to look like ‘the next big thing’, Mike Williams is your guy. At 6’3” and 225 pounds, the guy passes any preliminary eye tests with flying colors. Then, you watch the way he can toy with a cornerback’s focus, use his hands to create separation, and track a pass from release to completion, and you’re instantly sold. Sure, his natural talent can get him in trouble and he can be caught relying on his instincts, rather than his focus and technique. But, any negative aspects of his game can be improved over time with coaching at the NFL level. If a team is willing to give him a year or two to develop and learn the game at the pro level, he could turn into a very dangerous weapon.
If the Bengals are looking for another receiver who has the potential to match Green’s talent, Williams would be a good choice. Williams is a first round lock and has the potential to be the first receiver taken in this year’s Draft.
2. Corey Davis (Western Michigan)
Depending on who you ask, some people will tell you that Corey Davis is the best wide receiver prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft. He broke the all-time career FBS receiving yards mark (5,285) and recorded a hearty 52 touchdowns in the process. There is no more battle-tested receiver in this year’s draft. However, he needs to develop his technique more if he wants to make it at the NFL level. Shredding Mid-American Conference cornerbacks like cheese is one thing, but it’s another thing to do it against NFL level cornerbacks. However, as with Williams, the Bengals would need to jump on him with the No. 9 overall pick to have any shot at selecting him.
*3. John Ross (Washington)
If you didn’t believe me that this draft class is full of wide receiver talent, consider the case of John Ross. He’s not an overall better prospect than Davis or Williams, but there are still those who think he could be a top 15 pick. He might be a bit undersized and struggles with criticisms of poor play strength, particularly contesting passes against a defender. But, he does have that extra gear that can allow him to make plays on a regular basis. Think Marvin Jones, but with more proven speed. If anything, that alone should appeal to the Bengals. But, unlike Jones, the Bengals will have to select Ross early if he is on their radar.
*4. Curtis Samuel (Ohio State)
Samuel is the first of the wide receivers in this year’s draft that the Bengals could realistically target without paying the price of their first round draft pick. Fans of Ohio State would love to see the Buckeyes former H-back playmaker join the Bengals, although the Bengals might not be a fan of his poorly developed hand technique and lack of blocking experience. Blocking from wide receivers is an area in which the Bengals need to improve, not regress. The Buckeyes found a way to use him, but is there a place for him at the NFL level? It is hard to say, but the Bengals might be willing to take the chance on him if he falls to them in the third or even fourth round.
*5. JuJu Smith-Schuster (USC)
Smith-Schuster isn’t quite as perfectly proportioned as Mike Williams, but at 6’2” and 220 pounds, no one is going to question his size. He utilizes his competitive drive and alpha mentality to thrive in the middle of the field. Unfortunately, his routes can verge on predictable and he can disappear all together due to failing to create separation. He could be the next Anquan Boldin, but he could also be the next Braylon Edwards. However, he should last on the board until the third or fourth round, if the Bengals want to pick him.
Here’s the rest of Kiper’s top 10 wide receivers:
6. *ArDarius Stewart, Alabama
7. *Carlos Henderson, Louisiana Tech
8. *Isaiah Ford, Virginia Tech
9. Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma
10. Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington
For reference and comparison, here’s Todd McShay’s list of the top 5 wide receiver prospects for 2017:
1. *Mike Williams
2. Corey Davis
3. *John Ross
4. Cooper Kupp (Eastern Washington)
5. *ArDarius Stewart (Alabama)
One asterisk denotes a junior, and two asterisks denote a redshirt sophomore for the 2016 season.