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5 Bengals wide receivers battling for the No. 2 role heading into training camp

Who will win the rights to be the starting wide receiver opposite A.J. Green in Cincinnati?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-Minicamp Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals wide receiver group is becoming quite crowded, headlined by veteran A.J. Green. With seven seasons under his belt, Green has just as many Pro Bowl selections, six 1,000+ yard seasons (including one with 964 yards in only 10 games), and two Second-team All-Pro selections. No matter how you look at the numbers, Green is Andy Dalton’s go-to guy.

But the rest of the group could be described as unrealized potential.

Brandon LaFell

The Bengals brought in Brandon LaFell in 2016 to help offset the loss of Marvin Jones and Mohammed Sanu. He caught 64 receptions out of his 107 targets for 864 yards and 6 touchdowns that year, all career second-bests. LaFell stepped up in a big way when Green was injured for the last four games of that season. But LaFell has been the number three receiver for most of his NFL career; he’s only reached number two status since coming over to Cincinnati. He is the most seasoned of the group, so he seems to be to the default choice to be the second fiddle for the third straight year. With that said, it would be nice to see some of the Bengals’ young playmakers rise to the occasion and snatch that No. 2 job away from him.

Tyler Boyd

Then, there’s Tyler Boyd, who the Bengals drafted in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft. Between his excellent route-running ability, strong hands, and slower speed, he was selected to be Sanu’s replacement in the slot. Boyd was a dominant receiver for the Pittsburgh Panthers, but has not yet lived up to the same production at the NFL level.

He followed up a modest rookie season of 54 catches and 603 yards with only 22 catches for 225 yards in 2017. Boyd struggled with off-the-field issues for part of the season, as well as the lagging offensive woes that bogged down the rest of the team. But he showed us what he can do in the last two games of the season, in which he caught 10 receptions for 130 yards and one of the best touchdowns of 2017.

Boyd has more upside than LaFell, but we still can’t determine his ceiling. What makes LaFell a more attractive option for the coaching staff is they know his potential and what to expect when he takes the field.

As for the rest of the group, there are nothing but looming question marks.

John Ross

There is John Ross, who exploded in his final year with the Washington Huskies for 1,150 yards and 17 touchdowns. He drew even more attention when he broke the record for the 40-yard dash at the 2017 NFL Combine. The Bengals bought into the hype and took him with the ninth overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft. But, as we all know, his rookie campaign was a gigantic disappointment. If Ross comes to training camp fully healthy (as expected), the Bengals will hope he can become a dangerous threat out wide. In terms of raw talent, Green, Ross, and Tyler Eifert could be one of the best trios in the NFL. Hopefully, 2018 will be the year they put it all together. If Ross does well in training camp, he has a legitimate shot at solidifying the No. 2 role by the middle of the season.

Josh Malone

Three rounds after selecting Ross, the Bengals drafted Josh Malone. He only caught six of 17 targets for 63 yards and a touchdown in his rookie year, but offers big play abilities like Marvin Jones. Malone will require a strong camp and probably will have to spend a lot of time on special teams before he gets serious chunks of playing time, but he could stretch the field to make life easier for Dalton and the rest of the offense. Malone may not be ready for the No. 2 receiver role this season, but it’s not out of the question for him to develop into a starter for the Bengals.

Alex Erickson

Alex Erickson was an undrafted free agent who made his way onto the roster thanks to his return game. He was one of the most underrated kick returners in the league in his rookie season, but followed it up with a less dazzling season in 2017. The Bengals added Jessie Bates, Darius Phillips, Davontae Harris, and Quinton Flowers to the roster this offseason and all could compete for the return job. Even though Erickson caught 12 of his 18 targets last season, he will have to step it up during training camp if he is to keep his roster spot. He doesn’t seem to factor into the equation for the No. 2 role, despite the fact that he caught 75 percent of his targets and that eight of his 12 catches were on third or fourth down. Erickson constantly came through in clutch situations, but seems to be primarily a kick returner in the eyes of the coaching staff. It’s possible he doesn’t even make the roster this year if other players impress in that role.

Everyone else...

There is also the fourth-to-last pick in the 2018 draft, Auden Tate. His lack of speed played into his draft stock, but he might be able to make up for it with his size and his reach. He recently trained with Randy Moss, so if Moss’ expertise sinks in Tate could be a surprising roster pick and even playmaker. Tate caught one touchdown for every four receptions in college, which is an impressive statistic. The Bengals could very easily bring in Tate for red zone packages and he could gobble up touchdowns. Again, he’ll need a strong camp performance and he’ll need to stand out whenever he is called upon. But if he hits his ceiling every time he goes out, he could be more productive than most people would have predicted.

The Bengals have a hodgepodge of other late round picks and undrafted free agents. Cody Core was a sixth round pick as yet another member of the Bengals’ class of 2016. He had 17 catches for 200 yards in his rookie season, but was strictly a special teams player in 2017. He will need a strong camp just to make the roster this season after recording zero catches last year.

Ka’Raun White, Devonte Boyd and Kermit Whitfield are a few of former undrafted free agents who have yet to play a snap in the NFL, the former two being rookies. Whitfield was on the practice squad last year and his best chance this season at remaining with the Bengals is likely back in that same role.

Other than Green, who has just about all of the accolades in the book, there really isn’t a receiver on the roster who has shown they are ready to be the Bengals’ No. 2 receiver right now. LaFell isn’t getting any younger, Ross and Tyler Boyd have failed to live up to their high expectations and Malone and Erickson just don’t have the experience and skills to trust them as of today. There is a group of youngsters who haven’t had enough opportunity, but will need to show the coaching staff during camp they deserve more snaps than they have received.

Is this the year someone breaks out? Will LaFell finally look like a credible threat across from Green? Will Boyd look like a second round pick? Will Ross finally catch a pass? Will Tate break his way onto the field?

All of the team’s receivers should be healthy going into camp and many players have the opportunity to have a season to remember. The receivers group will be one of the best to keep an eye out for during camp this year.