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Josh Malone could be the Bengals’ breakout star at wide receiver in 2018

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Josh Malone posted a solid preseason, but his performance shows that he might be the most NFL-ready among the Bengals’ young wide receivers.

Cincinnati Bengals v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Seven seconds remain in the first half.

Quarterback Jeff Driskel leads a patchwork configuration of players a masterful 65 yards to the Colts’ 20-yard line. After Driskel lobbed the football beyond the reach of Levonte “Kermit” Whitfield’s reach, targeting the back right pylon, he brought his offense back to the line of scrimmage. Tra Carson flanked Driskel’s right. On the left stood Josh Malone, with Devonte Boyd on his inside shoulder.

Within three seconds of securing the snap, Driskel targeted the back left pylon. Despite playing deep, the Colts secondary allowed Malone to slip by, using both hands to grasp the football and lower his right foot just inside the white chalk.

“I was just more focused on just catching the ball and then my feet just do the rest of the work. That was my main priority, just catching the ball first,” Malone said.

The touchdown, scored with two seconds remaining in the first half, gave Cincinnati a 20-7 halftime lead. NOTE: Driskel was masterful on the drive, completing 10 of 12 passes for 90 yards — his first nine throws were completions.

A few plays later, Malone again looked like a veteran, snagging a Logan Woodside back shoulder pass with 10:52 remaining in the third.

John Ross and Auden Tate have become preseason darlings for understandable reasons — Ross is a former first-round pick who enhances the offense’s big-strike capabilities while Tate, a former seventh-rounder, has size and leverage to make contested catches. Both have deserved their praise — Ross secured an exciting 57-yard touchdown reception on the first possession of the third preseason game and Tate nabbed a 33-yard score in the first game. He nearly had another in the finale, but didn’t get his second foot down in bounds.

However, Malone deserves to be in this conversation, if not leading it. Not only does he appear more refined as a multi-tooled receiver, he’s looked more polished. There’s deceptive speed, amazing awareness (he finds gaps), a fantastic first name, and he’s making difficult receptions.

Consider the Bengals’ preseason opener against Chicago. Matt Barkley is at quarterback and the Bengals are on their own 49-yard line with 22 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Barkley launches the football 20 yards downfield where Malone is settling inside the bubble in Chicago’s zone coverage. Malone takes a shot and holds onto the football as he lands hard out of bounds.

Malone, selected in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL draft, posted six receptions last season, including a 25-yard touchdown during Cincinnati’s 24-23 win over Indianapolis. He finished the preseason this year with seven receptions and 101 yards receiving.

He’s a name to continue tracking as the Bengals begin the regular season next Sunday in Indianapolis.