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The Bengals’ amazing potential at wide receiver

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Training camp is an annual pilgrimage for fans, who are returning after spending the offseason recharging their batteries. One area that should generate more excitement is the team’s development at wide receiver.

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

Training camp tends to inflate expectations.

A quarterback appears sharper, a running back more nimble, a tight end perceptively healthier. Hall of Fame defensive tackles pressure unsuspecting rookie centers while linebackers are linebacking and defensive backs are trying not to get torched.

Training camp is fun. It’s a fan’s dream. It’s the initiation of a new sports season, not unlike opening day in baseball, the NBA at Christmas, or the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Superstars, whom you’re seeing up close and personal, look great. Incoming rookies show promise and an undrafted free agent (or two) impresses – Jake Kumerow is a superb training camp star, as he’s currently proving that again in Green Bay. When practice is completed, players sign autographs, mingle with fans, and everyone leaves with a Joker-sized grin on their face. “Today was a good day, dad.” “Yes, it was Billy.”

Everything feels great. Your fandom is maxed. Are the Bengals going to win 12 games, or 19? Will they ever lose another game?

Oh, and did you hear about the offensive line?

Most of us are experienced enough (Read: old as dirt) not to apply training camp as a regular season projector. For every excitement now, there are still questions we need answered.

A.J. Green has dazzled as usual, but will he battle a defender for a third down pass during a game-winning drive? Joe Mixon maintains impressive awareness in the flats (getting him in open space with the ball could be delightful); yet previous offensive coordinators have politely struggled to incorporate running backs into the passing game with useful consistency. The offensive line last year... *shudders*. Bill Lazor is implementing an offense that’s described as aggressive and fast. Everything sounds great on paper, but lacks substance from a fan’s perspective as it relates to games that matter.

Yet, getting to this point has been a minor miracle.

In discussing the upcoming season with friends, I admitted my overall interest last year had hit a new low. My view of the NFL is worse; it’s a league of uncreative offenses against far superior athletes on defense (and this doesn’t include social issues people choose to ignore, or the league’s horrible reputation regarding domestic violence). Coaches make conservative decisions that rarely benefit them (stop punting from midfield and go for it on fourth down). “Last year was probably the first year I didn’t really care,” said one friend, adding that he still attended every game at Paul Brown Stadium.

Extending Marvin Lewis’ tenure reenforced this trend; were there better options out there? Do we risk watching Mike Brown stumble around, looking for another head coach?

Yet, those winds of discontent have shifted.

The NFL draft, free agency, trades, and emergence of younger players have ignited enthusiasm.

Training camp is bringing people back.

Sure, expectations are going to be inflated. They always inflate during training camp. In same cases, it’s unavoidable.

Like this year, at wide receiver.

Along with A.J. Green making inhuman catches and John Ross being super-freaky-fast, Josh Malone (at least before his hamstring injury) is also making progress against physical defenders and creating separation.

“(Malone has) really flashed in the first three days,” wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell said over the weekend. “He’s got really good speed. He’s got good hands. He needs some confidence some times. He’s learning to be more physical and working off defenders better and I think that will help him. He’s a guy that can really run and he knows how to get open and make plays. He just has to be more consistent and keep learning the playbook.”

There’s potential there.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-Training Camp Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODAY NETWORK

Then there’s Auden Tate, a seventh-round rookie with tremendous praise from one of the heavyweights.

“Unbelievable,” A.J. Green said last month via Bengals.com. “We call him a young Brandon Marshall. The guy has unbelievable hands, he’s big (with) great body control. He had a very good (minicamp).”

“(Tate has) got a lot of things that you can’t teach,” Bicknell said toward the end of minicamp. “He’s got unbelievable size. He’s got really good body control. He’s got some quickness and he catches the ball the way that he caught it on film when we evaluated him. The first thing I saw with him is that he catches everything and that’s obviously important for us.”

Those qualities have, so far, transitioned into training camp awes with a general theme that he’s catching everything.

“He not only catches everything,” writes Geoff Hobson at the mothership. “He wrenches it out of people’s hands or plucks it out of the air at the last instant.”

Ross, a second-year player fully removed from Marvin Lewis’ nonexistent doghouse, has been a borderline superstar since Thursday. Starting defenders are struggling to maintain his speed. Quarterback Andy Dalton is enthusiastically praising Ross, saying that “we expect big things from him. He’s so talented, and he’s going to help us win a lot of games.”

Barring any obvious catastrophe, like an injury, zombie apocalypse, Star Wars movie, or Mike Brown interference, Andy Dalton could enter the regular season with the most impressive wide receiver group since Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu were last on the team in 2015.

“It’s one of the youngest,” Bicknell said via the mothership. “I think it takes three years for a receiver and we’ve got one guy (Boyd) right here and then after that two, three, four, five, six aren’t there yet. Great group. A lot of talent and they want to do well. Have to keep going.”

This isn’t the first time Bicknell has brought up Boyd’s name either. During spring practices earlier this year, the first-year coach said that Boyd “catches the ball well” and “ran an in-cut as well as anybody.” After an impressive rookie campaign in 2016 and a slump of all slumps in 2017, Boyd figures to rebound with his new coach.

On Thursday, word came out the Bengals were releasing Brandon LaFell, the only receiver with more experience than Boyd. LaFell is entering his ninth season in the NFL and joined the Bengals two years ago. LaFell posted a respectable 116 receptions for 1,410 yards receiving and nine touchdowns in Cincinnati. But with the foundation of young talent coming to the core, which also includes Cody Core, LaFell was “feeling the heat.” Those were Lewis’ words, not ours. LaFell was entering the final season of a two-year deal worth $9 million but now has been released as the youth renaissance begins in Cincinnati at the position.

Cincinnati traditionally carries six receivers, but that’s not always a certainty. They kept seven last year. Alex Erickson will probably maintain his role as a returner. But I won’t project (others can and will though). But for me, not yet.

Either way, the excitement for Bengals football is palpable. And you can start with the team’s wide receivers as to explain why.

Not that we’re projecting training camp possibilities into regular season predictions.

Nope. That would be insane.

Right?