About a week before training camp started, I said that there are going to be five wide receivers vying for the No. 2 spot behind A.J. Green.
I argued that, other than Green, nobody had established themselves as a solid wideout during their regular season play and that many of them would have to have strong camp performances to grab that spot.
So, I was pleasantly surprised to see, both on Twitter and in person, that many of these receivers are stepping up. In a group that underperformed during the regular season last year, there are so many good moments in training camp.
So what do we make of this group?
There are currently 11 wide receivers on the 90-man roster; the Bengals will try to trim this number down to six or maybe even seven like they did last year.
One of the most intriguing battles will still be to determine the second wideout across from Green. Obviously, Green’s spot is safe and the future hall-of-famer has dazzled coaches and defenses every day this week. But who will be across from him?
For the last two seasons, it has been Brandon LaFell, so he has the benefit of being the incumbent. But his camp performance has been nothing to write home about. In fact, the only times we have heard about him is when the defenders block or intercept balls thrown to him. While John Ross and Josh Malone are making headlines at camp, LaFell is giving us nothing.
Nothing escapes the eye of the internet, so many have been speculating that he might not make the cut.
I think he does, but he's not required. If Ross, Boyd and Malone are contributing and then you have Erickson, Core and Tate as depth, you're in good shape without Lafell. https://t.co/Q679oao0oU— Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) July 28, 2018
In the past couple of training camps, LaFell has been lining up across from Green in the wide receiver position drills. This year, Tyler Boyd has been lining up in that spot. Does this mean that LaFell is slipping down the depth chart?
Well, LaFell lined up as the No. 2 wideout in 11-on-11 drills. At first, I was frustrated by this because I thought John Ross had been having a good camp while LaFell had not. Ross should have those snaps until LaFell can prove that he still deserves them, which I felt he had not yet done this year at camp.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there is an upside to having LaFell be a big part of this group. If Green gets injured this year, who will take his spot? Who will be this group’s leader?
Will it be Tyler Boyd, who is only now starting to get into his grove after a tumultuous 2017? Will it be Ross, who played 17 snaps last year? Josh Malone or Cody Core?
If the Bengals cut LaFell, there will be no one left other than Green that has nearly the same level of experience and capacity to be a leader.
Will the Bengals take that into consideration? We will see.
Boyd might make a good enough No. 2 for Green, but he seems to be settling into the slot nicely. As I said, last season for Boyd was tumultuous, but he ended it in a high note. His last game of the season was statistically the best of his career, which ended in that last-minute touchdown to knock the Ravens out of the playoffs. He seems to be carrying the momentum from that game into camp, because he has been on fire. He was the leading receiver on Day 1, so he seems to be locking the slot down.
Ross has also been having a great camp. This is really the first time he has showcased his skills for the Bengals coaching staff and fans, since he was held back last year. This year, he seems to be in full health and he is making the most of this opportunity.
John Ross ran past Tony McRae in this drill. McRae answered by knocking the ball away from Brandon LaFell during his next rep pic.twitter.com/TVwbB5dhEa— James Rapien (@JamesRapien) July 26, 2018
Once again, it’s the John Ross show out here. Beating DBs with straight line speed and quick moves. The gathered #Bengals fans are salivating.— Jed DeMuesy (@Local12Jed) July 29, 2018
Ross is showing us why the Bengals grabbed him with their 9th-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. He would be a pleasure to see on the outside with Green. If that happens, defenses will have their hands full.
Malone showed some flashes of talent last year, but has kicked it up a notch during training camp.
Malone had six receptions in 2017, but he will have a lot more than that this season. He could legitimately challenge for that No. 2 spot if his camp keeps going the way its going.
Then, we have the rookie Auden Tate. He was drafted in the seventh round this year and initially was not given good odds to make the roster. Despite that, plays like this have kept happening:
Tate’s strengths are his size and his hands. He won’t be a featured wideout by any means, but he could snatch a roster spot away from someone else, not to mention attack DBs in the red zone. A goal-to-go set with Tate, combined with Green, Tyler Eifert and Tyler Kroft would give opposing defensive coordinators nightmares.
Alex Erickson is also making some noise at camp. In my opinion, he has been underused as a receiver in the last couple years and he always comes up with the catch when the ball is thrown his way.
Nonetheless, Erickson only made the team in the first place as a returner, and his ability as a receiver is just a bonus. Because his punt return game dropped off last season, compounded by 9 career fumbles in two years, there were those that thought he wouldn’t make the roster for a third season.
First of all, his spot as the lead returner doesn’t appear to be in grave danger. The Bengals had him returning punts in practice on Saturday with Boyd, Ross, and Darius Phillips. Boyd and Ross both returned punts in camp last year, but did not return a single one during the season. Phillips could win the job, but Erickson still might stick around for depth.
Secondly, Erickson has been doing a solid job as a receiver. He was the leading receiver on day 3 and gave us this gem:
Here is the best play from #Bengals camp thus far with Barkley using the play action to setup this deep ball that Erickson pulls down between two defenders for the catch, WOW #WhoDey pic.twitter.com/FuvrsxXmNr— Mark Slaughter (@MarkVSlaughter) July 28, 2018
Could Erickson do enough to earn a spot as a receiver rather than a returner? There’s still plenty of time between now and September to find out.
Other receivers are making heads turn as well. Kermit Whitfield and Ka’Raun White have been making plays as well with the limited opportunities they’re given in practice. The preseason is going to be the deciding factor whether or not they make it as far as the final cuts, but the practice squad is a far more likely destination for them compared to the 53-man roster.
Andy Dalton should be delighted to have a group such as this catching his passes. But the Bengals simply don’t have enough spots for everyone. Sadly, someone will have to be cut.
So who gets left out? Its too close to say now. I’m just glad that I don’t have to be the one to make that decision.