Wide receiver depth became a scarce resource for the Bengals in 2019. It got so dire that an undrafted rookie in Damion Willis was a starter for the first two weeks of the season. But Willis wasn’t the only first-year college free agent to impact the Bengals roster at the wide receiver position.
Stanley Morgan was one of the unsung heroes for a Bengals team that finished the year with a 2-14 record. It’s no surprise he remains under the radar, but there are reasons why he lasted so long on the active roster last year. And those reasons will keep him relevant in the weeks leading up to this season.
Stanley Morgan Jr.
Hometown: New Orleans, LA
Experience: two years
Having been waived, signed onto the practice squad, and elevated to the active roster last year, Morgan’s original three-year contract he signed as a college free agent has been voided. Now, he has one year remaining of the two-year, $1.08 million contract he signed as a street free agent last season when he was brought back onto the active roster. He’s set to make $675,000 this year and will become an exclusive rights free agent upon the conclusion of the 2020 league year.
Though Morgan’s not the son of former New England Patriots star receiver Stanley Morgan, he’s got an impressive resume for a 23-year old player.
He started in 32 career games across all four of the years he was at Nebraska. For such a historic program, you’d think they would’ve had one receiver eclipse 1,000 yards in a season before Morgan.
Morgan’s 1,004 yards in his senior season in 2018 set a school record as he became the first to cross the millennium mark. That put his career yardage at 2,747, which is also a school record.
At the 2019 NFL combine, Morgan quietly put together great explosion (38.5” vertical jump, 10’5” broad jump) and flexibility (4.13 short shuttle, 6.78 three cone) numbers for his size at 6-0 and just over 200 pounds.
Experience, production on a notable team, and above average athleticism for his size; Morgan had a very promising case to get picked during the 2019 NFL Draft. It just never happened. He immediately became one of the most well-known prospects available once the draft concluded, and the Bengals pounced on the chance to sign him.
Morgan had a passable first offseason with the team, but was quickly overshadowed by the emergence of Willis, who not only made the roster, but started in place of A.J. Green. For Morgan, he was the last man out at receiver and after making it through waivers, was signed onto the Bengals practice squad. An injury to John Ross saw Morgan get his chance in Week 5, and he made the most of it the only way he could: special teams.
Playing 177 snaps on all four punt and kickoff units, Morgan was Cincinnati’s undisputed best special teams player last season. His 90.1 special teams grade from Pro Football Focus was the sixth-highest in the entire NFL out of nearly 700 qualifying players. That’s elite by every definition.
It didn’t matter that Morgan had minuscule production as a receiver in the offense, he was a must-play for special teams because he was that good week in and week out. It’s why he stayed on the roster even when Ross returned late in the year.
The only game Morgan missed since his Week 5 debut was the season finale due to a concussion, a concussion he suffered whilst making his signature play of the season.
It can be easy to dismiss the value of a player like Morgan. If he doesn’t contribute much on offense, how much does he have to do again on special teams to warrant a roster spot; Especially one in such a contested position group?
That’s the question Zac Taylor and his assistant head coach Darrin Simmons have to find an answer for. Simmons should want to retain Morgan for his special teams prowess even if it means the offense will carry seven receivers and activate at least six of them. There will still be enough room to carry 18 total linemen, 10 defensive backs and three quarterbacks if they go that route to hold onto Morgan.
A return for Morgan would lead to increased expectations for him compared to last year. It will be hard for him to top that PFF grade, but he can continue to establish himself as the next premier special teamer in Cincinnati. For him to do that will require him to be active, and again, that may get tricky if the rest of the receiving corps stays healthy. But it’s not like that’s a guarantee knowing this team.
Seven is the magic number for Morgan to make the roster right now. The top five in A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, John Ross, Tee Higgins and Auden Tate can be considered locks, and Alex Erickson should benefit from no preseason games for the team to see if someone can supplant him as their punt returner. There’s also Mike Thomas and, of course, Damion Willis, who will contend with Morgan as well.
It feels like a 50-50 at the moment, but this is the MVP of the best special teams unit from last season according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. We’re prepared to give a slight edge for now.
Roster Odds: 55%