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Bengals rookie review: Wide receiver Josh Malone

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Josh Malone showed flashes of promise, but not enough that his roster spot is guaranteed for 2018.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals don’t quite know what they have with either of their wide receivers taken in the 2017 NFL Draft,

After taking John Ross with the No. 9 overall pick, the Bengals took Josh Malone with the 128th pick in the 2017 draft. They took talented receivers in hopes of upgrading their porous offense, which finished 24th in points per game in 2016.

The former Tennessee Volunteers receiver was one of the best receivers in the SEC last season. The 6’3”, 208-pound Malone caught 50 passes for 972 yards (19.4 avg.) and 11 scores last season.

Most draft experts had Malone projected as a top-100 prospect in this year’s class. Part of the reason why Malone didn’t get more love was that he was hit or miss in his first two seasons of college football, catching 54 balls for 636 yards and three scores in 19 games from 2014-15.

At 6’3” and 208 pounds, Malone brings a big target who put up solid workout numbers at the NFL Combine, where he ran a 4.40-second 40-yard dash to go with his impressive size.

According to Mock Draftable, four of Malone’s closest physical comparisons are Andre Caldwell, Cody Core, Quincy Morgan and Armon Binns. He looked like exactly what the Bengals’ needed at the wide receiver position: A physical presence who can outmuscle defensive backs for contested passes and help take pressure off of A.J. Green.

The Bengals are certainly used to finding impact receivers in the latter rounds. Since 2001, we’ve seen guys like T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Tab Perry, Dezmon Briscoe, Marvin Jones, James Wright, Cobi Hamilton and Cody Core go from being late-round receivers to making impacts of varying degrees in their pro careers, whether it was with the Bengals or elsewhere.

We saw glimpses of that with Malone in 2017, especially in training camp and the preseason. Malone looked like someone who could actually challenge for a starting spot, as his combination of speed, size and athleticism made him a tough cover. He finished the preseason with six catches for 69 yards and a touchdown, and it looked like things were trending upward for him entering the regular season.

Unfortunately, we rarely got to see Malone draw so much as a target. He finished the season with just six catches for 63 yards and a touchdown on 17 targets in 247 snaps.

Malone’s lone score came against the Indianapolis Colts in a game the Bengals needed every point of in a 24-23 win. But with most of the targets going to A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell and Tyler Kroft, Malone never got a real chance to prove himself.

That said, Malone is still a very promising player that could grow to make an impact in Cincinnati’s offense, which needs all the help it can get after finishing 2017 ranked 26th in scoring.

But even with Malone being a promising prospect, his roster spot is anything but guaranteed. The Bengals are set to return A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell, Tyler Boyd, Alex Erickson, Cody Core and John Ross. That means Malone may actually have to make the final roster as a seventh receiver.

Ideally, the Bengals will make LaFell a cap casualty and not have to worry about keeping that many receivers next season. But if the Bengals keep LaFell and ultimately keep just six receivers going into the regular season, then Malone has a tough battle ahead of him.