The wide receiver position has been perhaps the most interesting group for the Bengals this preseason. The team did not appear to make any major additions to the position. They signed no big name free agents and didn’t use a single draft pick on a wide receiver.
They did however bring in a new head coach in Zac Taylor, who fans hope will get the most out of the team’s veterans; some of whom have yet to meet expectations. Key injuries and surprise undrafted free agents have added to the intrigue.
Let’s take a closer look at the position-battle and film on some of the bubble players.
First, let’s cover who is definitely going to make the team. A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, John Ross, and Alex Erickson are clearly locks to make the 53-man roster. They were locks before camp even started. Green’s early camp injury is unfortunate, but obviously he isn’t going anywhere. Neither are Boyd and Ross; the former just signed an extension and Taylor has repeatedly backed the latter’s importance this season.
As for Erickson, it is clear that Darius Phillips isn’t going to be team’s principle punt returner in the near future. Erickson is a very good returner in addition to being a talented wide out and that role makes him a lock.
The surprising lock is UDFA Damion Willis, whom Taylor named as the Week 1 starter in place of the injured Green. Let’s take a look at some of the plays that fueled Willis’ meteoric rise.
This was an insane touchdown catch by Willis that was called back due to a pretty ticky-tacky offensive pass interference call. He tracks the ball and makes a great play.
Willis’ college film is littered with ridiculous catches. He is incredible in contested catch situations. On this play, Janoris Jenkins became his latest victim. He did a great job of recognizing that the ball was under-thrown and putting himself in a position to make the play.
This play was UDFA to UDFA as quarterback Jake Dolegala laced the ball into tight coverage on the goal line and found Willis for the touchdown. Once again, it was Willis’ concentration and ability to track the ball that stood out on this play.
“That’s baby making music” - Ron Burgundy pic.twitter.com/DoNh3f0D9v— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) August 23, 2019
The Bubble Players
That makes 5 locks. Although there is no precedent for how Taylor will construct his roster, Green’s injury means the Bengals will likely keep seven wide receivers. There are four players in contention for these two spots.
Willis climbed the depth chart by making plays whenever he had the opportunity, which is exactly what the preseason is about. Young players must make themselves stand out and prove they belong and earn their spot.
Second-year player Auden Tate has made some plays this preseason as well.
Tate is a big receiver who creates major match-up problems for a defense. This first clip is a great example of that. Tate is covered pretty tightly by Chiefs’ cornerback Charvarius Ward, but a good ball from Andy Dalton and Tate’s superior length are the determining factors on this play.
This Dalton to Tate connection pic.twitter.com/aTlYpBTqAF— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) August 12, 2019
This is another excellent play by Tate. The ball was thrown behind him, but he made an excellent adjustment to reach back for the touchdown catch.
As the depth chart gets deeper, it is important to look for special teams contributors. Tate has demonstrated excellent ability to block in space on the kickoff return team, which will help to earn him a roster spot. He can also run down on kickoffs as a lane player. Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons recently talked about how pleased he is with Tate.
Josh Malone is a fan favorite. He showed great speed in college and was billed as a deep ball threat. Unfortunately, although Malone has had some big plays in practice, he has not stood out in preseason games as often as he should.
This clip shows a great touchdown catch he made against the Giants. The ball came in high and over his shoulder, but he adjusted seamlessly and made a fantastic play.
Has Malone done enough to stand out and make the Bengals coaching staff keep him around? He has a ton of potential, but he is a few years into his career and the Bengals locker room is becoming flooded with younger wide receivers with high potential.
It doesn’t help his case that he has contributed little on special teams in his career. They have tried him out in a few roles during preseason, including kick returner, but he won’t be earning a job that way.
Cody Core is of course known for his special teams play. He has been one of the better special teams players on the roster in recent years, but unreliable as a wide receiver. Oddly enough, he has flipped the script on that evaluation this preseason. He has been sure-handed in the preseason games, serving as a reliable possession receiver, but he has also been atrocious on special teams.
He went up in the air to make the catch and move the chains on this play against the Chiefs.
Core looking good on this catch pic.twitter.com/khGdk2bji8— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) August 25, 2019
Reliability as a receiver, though previously his curse, may not be enough for him to make the roster. He is a big player and a good athlete; he needs to make plays.
As mentioned previously, he has not looked good on special teams this preseason. If he makes the roster, it will be largely because of his reputation there and Simmons’ confidence in him. If he can get back to his 2018 form, he is worth a roster spot. But it is unclear who he will be on special teams this year.
The final contender is Stanley Morgan. Morgan was a well-known draft prospect who shockingly went unselected. He is an extremely gifted receiver who has a knack for making plays.
In this first clip, Morgan makes a great adjustment to catch Ryan Finley’s pass which was thrown behind him.
Nice adjustment by Stanley Morgan pic.twitter.com/W6j9a01INt— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) August 25, 2019
This next clip shows Morgan’s greatest quality. He has the ability to pick up yards after the catch, not just with speed but with an ability to break tackles that is uncharacteristic at his position.
Stanley Morgan getting some RAC yards pic.twitter.com/utOrf7x0LG— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) August 25, 2019
Morgan has shown flashes of being able to make plays, but has he shown enough? Unfortunately, he was not able to play in the team’s fourth preseason game, which robbed him of an opportunity to stand out and could cost him a roster spot.
As noted above, Green, Boyd, Ross, Erickson, and Willis are locks. Go ahead and write those names in with a Sharpie.
It is likely that two more receivers will make the team. Tate would appear to be in the lead for the sixth spot. He has made more plays than anyone else, and is developing into an excellent contributor on special teams.
This leaves Malone, Core, and Morgan competing for what is likely just one position.
If they were ranked by the plays they have made in the preseason, Morgan and Malone would be a tight No. 1 and No. 2, with Core coming in third. Looking at the potential to make plays, Malone might get the nod, but he has yet to break out and Morgan’s youth could prevail.
If they were ranked by special teams ability, Core would be the clear No. 1 despite his struggles this preseason, with Morgan coming in second, and Malone in a distant third. How much will the Bengals look at Core’s past performance on special teams versus his bad preseason?
To me, it will come down to Core and Morgan. Does the team believe in Core as a special teams player or do they see great potential in Morgan. Keeping two UDFAs and moving on from Core and Morgan would speak profoundly about the changes in Cincinnati under the new regime.
That makes a group of Green, Boyd, Ross, Erickson, Willis, Tate, and Morgan as my prediction to what the final seven will be. What’s your prediction look like?