In the Marvin Lewis era, there’s been just two seasons in which the Bengals had a starting quarterback finish a season with more than a 100 passer rating while throwing for more than seven adjusted net yards per attempt. Carson Palmer did it first in 2005, totaling a 101.1 rating while throwing 7.26 ANY/A. A decade later in 2015, Andy Dalton topped those numbers with a 106.2 rating and throwing for a remarkable 8.17 ANY/A.
There were two common denominators for these productive seasons. Up front, the offensive line in 2005 allowed just 19 sacks and only 20 were given up in 2015 with Andy Dalton under center. Each quarterback was consistently kept clean, and that allowed the other denominator to materialize: both quarterbacks had three reliable receivers.
The 2005 receiver-trio of Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry brought proper diversification to the offense. Johnson was the do-it-all split end receiver with the ability to beat tight coverage from the defense’s best cornerback. Houshmandzadeh was the classic possession target who could rack up underneath yardage aligned on the boundary and in the slot. Henry, who was just a rookie, was the vertical threat who kept the safety honest and freed up others to work under the deep shells.
The 2015 trio was constructed very similarly to that group. A.J. Green made his fifth Pro Bowl by being Johnson 2.0, Mohamed Sanu operated efficiently out of the slot like a young Houshmandzadeh, and Marvin Jones stretched the field and came down with jump balls downfield like vintage Henry used to.
The Bengals go as far as Dalton takes them, and Dalton has gone as far as his receivers have been able to carry him. This is one of the biggest reasons why the veteran signal-caller hasn’t been able to replicate that 2015 season in the two years since.
Sanu and Jones left before 2016 and the team has waited patiently for their drafted replacements to effectively fill the voids left behind. The only player to remotely fill the void has been 2016 free agent signing Brandon LaFell, but with one year left on his second deal with the team, the Bengals need production and growth from the young pass catchers behind him. And each will have plenty of eyes locked onto them this training camp.
The group is headlined by John Ross, because no one else should have more motivation to emerge as a starter. Being the team’s only other top 10 pick on the roster, expectations were as high for him last year as his 40 yard dash time was fast. Unfortunately, like most of the team’s first-round picks who have come before him, his rookie season was derailed with injury issues and they took a toll on his play when he actually was on-the-field.
Very rarely do rookies under Marvin Lewis get a clear shot of starting in Week 1; even in year two, Ross will not be handed the spot across from Green with LaFell still in the fold. But if given a fair shot in camp and the preseason, there’s little reason as to why Ross won’t convince offensive coordinator Bill Lazor to get him involved early and often. The evolution of the offense depends on it.
Ross will be gunning for LaFell’s spot, and Tyler Boyd will also be pushing for snaps. Boyd’s rookie year in 2016 was as impressive as his regression in 2017 was troubling.
In July 2017, Boyd was involved in a drug-related traffic incident and was charged with illegal possession of the substances in question in October. Before the charges were announced, Boyd was a healthy scratch for a game and generally not-involved in the offense. It’s speculated that Boyd and the coaching staff were going through a rift and it disrupted the beginning of his sophomore season.
Boyd then began dealing with a MCL injury in October and missed a handful of games recovering from it. When he returned, he was just as transparent in the offense as before, but then out of nowhere recorded 130 of his 225 receiving yards in the final two games of the season, and the touchdown that knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs. His two-week stretch to close the season may give Boyd the momentum he needs to bounce back to his 2016 form and beyond, starting with a promising camp showing.
Cody Core and Josh Malone
Nearing the bottom of the depth chart are a couple of lean vertical threats who are looking to become more complete targets. Cody Core and Josh Malone are both former Day 3 picks from SEC schools and have an impressive combination of height, weight and speed.
During last year’s OTAs, it was Core who was dubbed as a potential breakout candidate after getting targets down the stretch of his rookie year in 2016, and coming into 2017 with athletic prowess. As a result, Core saw not 65 targets, but 65 total snaps on offense, as the talks of him building off his limited exposure in 2016 proved to be overblown.
Now in year three, like Boyd, Core is likely going to retain his role as a gunner on punt teams, and his opportunities to become anything more than that will be limited. But if the opportunity arises, he’ll have to fight off Malone to seize it.
Malone was thrusted into the starting lineup when Boyd went down in the middle of the season. In his 247 offensive snaps, he was targeted 17 times and was able to haul in only six of them, though one was for a touchdown. Malone was touted as a raw prospect, and his route-running validated that. But like with Core, that athleticism still exists, and needs to show now that he can utilize it effectively.
Back in the slot, third-year undrafted return-man Alex Erickson still has a case to make the roster, but will have to fight off a couple others for it. If Erickson isn’t taking back kickoffs and fielding punts because another has proven better, his ability as a receiver will have to carry him to the final 53-man roster. Erickson is a serviceable option inside, but unless he shows he’s far and away better than Boyd in this area, his path will be one of the roughest.
Finally, there’s the big guy. Auden Tate was the 11th pick from the Bengals’ 2018 draft class, and is likely the 7th receiver on the non-existent depth chart right now. Tate won in college with his size and his size only, if he has an impressive camp, it won’t be because of anything that wasn’t on his tape. The Bengals could use a target that immense in the red zone, but his lack of viability on special teams will put him at a disadvantage. If he makes the team, it’s likely because an abnormal exception was made.
For the Bengals offense to improve, the team needs to find out which two receivers are best to partner with Green, and for those two to clearly emerge. Every receiver has something to prove and we’ll find out if any of them are capable of becoming more than what they’ve shown to be.