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Comparing the Bengals’ 2016 and 2017 wide receiver units

The Bengals made some striking changes to their wide receiver corps this offseason.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals have had their work cut out for them in improving the wide receiver corps during the last two years. Following a mass exodus after the 2015 season that saw Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Mario Alford, and Brandon Tate move to the Lions, Falcons, Browns, and Bills, respectively, the Bengals revamped the unit. Free agency and the draft were both used as tools to bring in new talent at the position, leaving the team with a solid unit in 2016, but one that still needed improvements. Let's take a look at the 2016 receiving corps and how it looks in comparison to the group the Bengals project to field in 2017.

2016 roster

A.J. Green

2016 was a year marred by injury for the Bengals’ elite receiver. His 66 receptions for 964 yards and four touchdowns would be a solid season total for an average wide receiver. But Green is not an average wide receiver, so the numbers were disappointing. Green has never missed more than three games in a season before. In 2016, he missed six. If he can stay healthy, 2017 projects to be a much more productive year for the Bengals’ best pass catcher, offensive weapon, and overall player on the team.

Status: Still on the team.

Brandon LaFell

While no one enjoyed seeing Green injured in 2016, LaFell’s production in his first season with the Bengals benefited as he was filled in as the No. 1 receiver when Green was out. As a result, he recorded the second best season of his career with 64 receptions for 862 yards and six touchdowns. Statistically, he was more productive than any of the receivers the Bengals lost in the 2016 offseason. You could argue that had a lot to do with Green’s absence, but LaFell’s 107 targets in 2016 are comparable to Jones’ 103 in 2015. In his second season with the team, LaFell will likely see a reduced role in favor of mentoring the newer, younger players on the roster. But, he was productive enough in 2016 to maintain somewhat of a significant role going forward. He was re-signed this offseason to a two-year contract, but, the Bengals have the option to void the second year (2018).

Status: Still on the team.

Tyler Boyd

The Bengals were hoping to pick up a wide receiver in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, but saw a run on the top receivers right before their pick. Boyd was their backup plan in the second round, but his 54 receptions for 603 yards and a touchdown (in addition to four runs for 58 yards) made it seem like he could have been their plan all along. With the influx of new receivers this offseason, Boyd could have a tough time maintaining the playing time he had last year. But, there is no doubt he is still in the Bengals’ plans going forward. In 2017, expect him to compete with LaFell, Cody Core and Josh Malone for playing time.

Status: Still on the team.

Cody Core

The Bengals weren’t satisfied with adding just Boyd to the wide receiver corps in the 2016 NFL Draft, so they picked Core up in the sixth round. At 6’3” and 205 pounds, the Bengals figured he could help their deep passing game. Guys like Boyd and LaFell were brought in as short-to-intermediate passing options, but Core’s size and athleticism adds an element to the passing game that, without him, only Green provided in 2016. Given the influx of new talent, his role with the team will likely drop off even from the minimal production he had in 2016 (17 receptions for 200 yards). But, the Bengals will certainly give him a chance to earn his keep and will likely find some way to get him the ball this season.

Status: Still on the team.

James Wright

Throughout Wright’s short tenure with the Bengals, he looked much more promising than most seventh round draft picks. He only caught 18 passes for 197 yards, in addition to five carries for 24 yards over the course of his time in Cincinnati. But, that had a lot to do with injuries stunting his development. When healthy and put in the right position, Wright made a few plays that gave Bengals fans hope for his long-term future. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen as his stunted development made him the odd-man out in almost every passing situation in 2016. He was released by the team back in March and will spend 2017 trying to make an impact with the Browns.

Status: On the Browns.

Alex Erickson

The Bengals found a real gem after the 2016 NFL Draft in Erickson. Due to his inability to create vertical separation, low college production, average speed, and average post-catch ability, every team avoided picking him up in the draft., But, the Bengals saw past his struggles at wide receiver and, instead, found the guy who ended up being the NFL’s leading kick returner in 2016. As expected, he didn’t make any impact on the passing game, but, if he can continue averaging something similar to the 27.9 yards per kick return he put up in 2016 (led the AFC), there is no doubt the Bengals will find a place for him on the 2017 roster.

Status: Still on the team.

2017 changes

John Ross drafted in Round 1

The 2017 NFL Draft was packed to the brim with wide receiver talent, as evidenced by the three wide receivers who were selected in the top-10. The Bengals picked up the third of those oh-so-coveted receivers, Washington’s John Ross, with the No. 9 overall pick. Perhaps most famous for breaking Chris Johnson’s record 40-yard dash time with a 4.22 second mark, he will add an element of speed both before and after the catch. That is something the Bengals desperately needed this offseason.

Josh Malone drafted in Round 4

The Bengals brought in another speedy receiver in Tennessee’s Josh Malone. The difference between Ross and Malone is Malone’s 4.40 40-yard dash time at the combine wasn’t as exciting. But, when you consider his size at 6’3” and 208 pounds, his 40 time looks a lot more impressive. He is expected to play a similar role to Core in 2017. But, with speed on his side, there is a good chance he will easily win the fifth spot on the depth chart.

Undrafted players

The Bengals picked up Michigan State’s Monty Madaris and Stanford’s Karel Hamilton after the draft and will be returning Chris Brown (picked up off the waiver wire this offseason), Alonzo Russell, and Jake Kumerow to compete with this year’s wide receiver group. However, unlike 2016, there doesn’t seem to be much room for an undrafted player to surprise people, wiggling their way onto the roster, and proving extremely valuable after the draft, much like Erickson did last year. There was a time when Kumerow was thought to have a solid chance of making the Bengals’ roster, but that chance appears to have come and gone. He still has one year of practice squad eligibility remaining, but a spot on the roster does not appear to be in the cards this season.

2017 outlook

The Bengals’ 2016 receiving corps was a solid unit, although it lacked enough top-tier options to make much of an impact. Lack of options will certainly not be a problem in 2017 as the Bengals doubled-down with two very talented receivers in the draft and will be returning five very deserving players from the 2016 roster.

The Bengals typically roster six receivers, but because it is so difficult to imagine who will be the odd-man out in that group, the Bengals have already expressed their desire to roster seven wide receivers in 2017. It makes sense, as Erickson is expected to contribute at kick returner, rather than receiver, leaving the normal number of actual receiving options (six).

However, keeping seven players at receiver means other positions will suffer. The Bengals might not be able to keep seven linebackers, or four running backs, as they have been accustomed to over the years. However, if the Bengals feel keeping an extra receiver will help them win more games, all the power to them.