The Cincinnati Bengals employed an interesting strategy in the 2017 NFL Draft. Despite having major needs on the offensive and defensive lines, at linebacker, and a plethora of other less-exciting positions, the Bengals decided to focus on offensive firepower. At wide receiver, in particular, they picked up two incredible, young talents in Washington’s John Ross and Tennessee’s Josh Malone.
Despite so many losses at wide receiver in the 2016 offseason, the 2016 receiving corps looked promising. A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell, Tyler Boyd, Cody Core, and Alex Erickson all looked to have plenty of potential to make an impact going forward. James Wright was the final piece of that puzzle, but he failed to live up to his potential and, as a result, was cut earlier this offseason. Now, the Bengals have those original five receivers plus the two new draft picks to put together a unit where they normally keep six players. That said, every one of those players appears to be poised for a key role with the team. So, the Bengals will likely try to do whatever they can, according to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com, to keep all seven players on the roster.
Brandon LaFell is going nowhere and as of right now I think they’re going to do everything possible to keep seven wide receivers. The coaches absolutely love Josh Malone and I think everyone in their room thought he’d be gone in the second round. But he just turned 21 and the sense is he’s viewed as a guy that’s going to need a year to develop and will probably be inactive for most games. So LaFell and Malone are going nowhere and they also covet Cody Core and Alex Erickson, so the sense is that tough cut may be elsewhere. But that’s a long way off.
Keeping seven receivers on the roster could be difficult, especially considering it will probably mean another position the Bengals traditionally like to keep extra players at, like linebacker or running back, will have to suffer. Still, if all seven players make the final roster, it will be because the Bengals have very specific roles in mind for each player. Let’s take a look at how the receiver position looks to shape up and the roles each player should be assuming.
It should be obvious the Bengals’ role for Green will continue to be the same it always has been. Green is the superstar wide receiver who brings a certain potency to the Bengals’ offense that you simply can’t find anywhere else on the roster. He is the No. 1 WR and has no competition to take away that role.
The Bengals’ No. 9 overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, Ross was brought in as a speedster who can get around defensive backs and open up the field. His role is expected to be complementary to Green’s, but that is not to say he will be pushed to the side. The Bengals, like most NFL teams, have room for multiple stars in the passing game.
At 30-years-old, we could get to a point, sooner rather than later, where LaFell becomes expendable. But, that’s likely not going to be this year as the Bengals’ love LaFell’s leadership and can-do attitude. He was brought on as a stabilizing, veteran presence for a unit that lost considerable talent in 2016 and will likely continue to play that role until the young receivers are experienced enough to stand alone. Ross will look to take snaps away from LaFell as the season progresses, but, LaFell is likely to be starting in Week 1.
The Bengals picked Boyd up in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft primarily because they missed out on picking up a wide receiver in the first round. That said, Boyd was a nice consolation prize, bringing in 54 receptions for 603 yards and a touchdown in his rookie season. He doesn’t project as a future star in the passing game, but he serves as the primary slot receiver and can fill the wild card role that was once held by Mohamed Sanu.
The Bengals were absolutely thrilled when they picked up a receiver of Malone’s talent in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. At 6’3” and recording a 4.4 second 40-yard dash at the combine, Malone is a threat to break the big play every time the ball comes near him. He still needs to learn to better utilize his size advantage, as well as how to shake defenders. But, his measurable suggest he could do well in the slot, though, he rarely played there in college. Per PFF, Malone ran only 5.2 percent of his routes from the slot in 2016 (41 of 786), while 80 percent of his yardage came from outside the slot (775 of 972 yards). The Bengals have enough talent to avoid rushing him onto the field, so his role will likely be developmental in 2017.
Another big, able-bodied receiver, Core doesn’t possess the speed and quickness the coaches love from Malone. But, he put up 17 receptions for 200 yards in 2016 and also contributed on special teams. He is, decidedly, the last major option at wide receiver, and might struggle to beat out Malone if they were in competition. But, he is likely to play a solid sixth-man role at wideout, previously occupied by James Wright.
As the AFC’s leading kick returner in 2016, Erickson’s value to the Bengals goes far beyond his value as a wide receiver. The problem is, his value as a receiver was essentially nonexistent in 2016. Still, the Bengals should be hesitant to move on from one of the most potent weapons on the team, even if he doesn’t produce much at his listed position. The Bengals employ Cedric Peerman, who almost exclusively makes an impact on special teams alone, so why should kick returner be any different? Ross was a superstar kick returner in college, and Mixon has experience there, too. But the Bengals likely won’t want to risk the health of their first and second round draft picks. There’s also the addition of defensive back/running back (yes, you read that right) Brandon Wilson who can serve as a returner. So, while Erickson proved his worth last year, no spot is safe following the addition of 11 draft picks.