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Crowded room

Posted Apr 12, 2014

If one of those highly-regarded wide receivers falls in the May 8 first round of the NFL Draft, would the Bengals add to an already talented room?

Cobi Hamilton is also going to have to catch on in special teams if he's going to make the roster at wide receiver.

Here’s one thing we definitely know about the May 8 first round of the NFL Draft.

When the Bengals pick at No. 24, there will be an enticing player they didn’t think was going to be there. You only have to go back a year to see Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert on the board at No. 21.

Here’s one thing we probably know about that 24th pick. There’s going to be good enough wide receiver there to make you pause and, maybe, just maybe, pull the trigger.

Whether it is the tear-away jersey elusiveness of USC’s Marqise Lee, the double-threat resume of LSU return specialist Odell Beckham, or the best-in-the-nation 1,670 yards churned by Oregon State’s indestructible Brandin Crooks (he’s never missed a game at any level), or somebody else, that guy will at least make you pause.

The gut call is the Bengals probably won’t be seduced at receiver even if it is one of the deepest wide-out fields ever. Even with the departure of slot receiver Andrew Hawkins, their first three wide receivers of three-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green, 10-TD man Marvin Jones, and versatile slot receiver Mohamed Sanu has a terrific brew of speed, savvy, third-down toughness, and highlight hands.

And the other four already on the roster have a lot going for them. They’ve all been in the system at least a year and have a measure of flexibility, which is going to be a must under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. It would be tidy to say that on paper Dane Sanzenbacher replaces Hawkins as the No. 4 receiver, return man Brandon Tate remains as the last active receiver on Sundays, and Ryan Whalen and Cobi Hamilton are battling for that sixth and last spot on the roster.

That would be nice to say, but their position coach isn’t buying it. It looks like the packages are going to be more personnel specific under Jackson and special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons is going to have a big say in the backups.

“We’re not numbering them. With Hue coming in, everyone’s got a clean slate,” James Urban says. “No preconceived notions on what they’ve done or haven’t done. We’ll look at everybody outside; we’ll look at everybody inside. Some of that will be determined by the packages. Does this guy do the best for that package? We’ve talked about that. We’ll see how it goes. As long as we have the personnel to do it. We have some flexibility. We’re not type casting anybody at this point.”

Urban has passed Jackson’s message along. Much of Jay Gruden’s playbook is going to stay the same, but the approach is going to match Jackson’s aggressive fast-forward personality.

“Some of the challenges will be just a little different style with some of the stuff we're going to do with Hue than we did with Jay and we did great things with Jay,” Urban says. “Some of the things (now) are everything is fast, explosive, everything is going to be as fast as we can possibly do it.”

OK, so we’ll honor Jackson’s tempo and do a quick look at the Original 7 receivers on the 2014 roster:

A.J. Green - The greatest Bengals wide receiver of all time. If he hits his average of 1,278 yards this season, he’ll become just the seventh Bengal with 5,000 yards at 5,110 yards, almost halfway to Chad Johnson’s franchise record 10,783. After just four years.

Marvin Jones - Only one Bengal in history has had back-to-back seasons with double-digit TD catches. That would be Green in 2012 and last season with 11 each. His clear-cut running mate at No. 2 receiver, Jones tries to match him this season.

Mohamed Sanu Jackson can’t wait to use his versatility as a runner and a thrower. Don’t be surprised to see the Wildcat for a few downs with M. Sanu at the controls.

“You’re limited only by your imagination in terms of Mo,” Urban says.

After scoring four TDs in three starts as a rookie in 2012, Sanu’s production dipped to two TDs and Jones asserted himself as Green’s No. 2. Plus, he uncharacteristically had two huge drops, the fumble in Chicago on Opening Day and the bobble on the sideline that would have been a first down in overtime in Miami.

But Urban says, “Blame me,” about any drop in production.

“He does so many things well. I spread him a little thin,” Urban says. “He’s as frustrated as anybody about those plays. But we know what he does well and you’ll love him when he’s that big, physical guy making that tough catch. He’s a fan favorite and a favorite in the locker room. Good guy, smart guy. You’ll love him when he’s doing the things he does so well.”

In the hands of Jackson, he just may become the most diverse weapon the Bengals have ever had.

Dane Sanzenbacher - He only had six catches last season, but two were of the spectacular variety that helped win games late.

“He’s crafty, he knows the game, he’s one of these guys you know what you’re getting every day,” Urban says. “I wouldn’t sleep on Dane.”

Certainly Simmons isn’t snoozing, and it’s about time he gets into the conversation. Special teams are going to have a lot to say about the three guys behind the big three. Because Hawkins was a gunner on punt cover and a vise player on punt return. Sanzenbacher was inactive five of the last six games. That No. 4 receiver is going to have to contribute something on teams.

And he's not saying Sanzenbacher can't do it. A big reason he made the team last season is because of the 71-yard punt return for a touchdown in Atlanta in the preseason and he hasn't ruled him out getting some action there. He also thinks he can contribute in some of the areas Hawkins did, he just doesn't know.

"We knew we had a known commodity in Hawk and that's why we went with him," Simmons says. "I think Dane can do some of those things, but we'll see."

It's just not at receiver where Simmons needs players. Because the Bengals play a 4-3 defense in a 3-4 division, they're low on linebackers and that's the most flexible position for a special teams unit. Plus, the Bengals have struggled to get teams production from their backup cornerbacks, so receiver has become doubly important for him.

Brandon Tate - Speaking of teams, that's why Tate is here. He's a fan favorite to bash because he doesn't run away and hide when it comes to big returns. But the facts are he's been their principal return guy on three playoff teams and he's been able to return both kicks and punts while winning some games and not losing any. He's reliable, committed, and one of those guys you don't miss until he's gone.

Tate, the club’s all-time leader when it comes to yards per kick and second in punt returns, has been zeroing in on several franchise return records since he joined the club off waivers from the Patriots on the eve of the 2011 season.

That said, the Bengals are always looking to upgrade and the draft is the best place. The CW is they're looking for DBs at both corner and safety and if they land a returner that could make the receiver scramble all that more interesting.

Ryan Whalen - Simmons likes Whalen for the same reason the offensive coaches like him.

"He's very smart, he's always in position, he knows what to do," Simmons says.

But he just hasn't been able to get on the field with this group and didn't have a catch last season. He's been inactive for 31 of his 48 career games and yet when he has played, he's contributed. He's got four teams tackles, he can move seamlessly from inside and out, and his last catch was a third-down conversion in the victory in Pittsburgh that put them in the 2012 playoffs.

Cobi Hamilton - Unless they pull the trigger on one of the fallen receivers, the 6-2, 205-pound Hamilton is going to be the most scrutinized receiver in camp. A sixth-round pick last season out of Arkansas, Hamilton began to catch some eyes as his rookie season developed on the practice squad.

"I have high hopes for him. He has high hopes for himself. He just has to do it," Urban says. "He's got great size, great range. He's a bit of a long strider, but once he gets going he can run, he runs fine. I think he had an adjustment getting into great NFL shape and finding a comfort level like many rookies do and he started to make a lot of plays.

"He worked his tail off. He stayed out with me after practice, he started seeing things and it started to click for him."

He'll also have to spend some time after practice with Simmons if he's going to make the club. Hamilton can make as many acrobatic catches as he wants in the preseason, but he'll also have to toss in a few tackles as a gunner and make plays in other areas of teams in the blocking game.

"It can't be in the back of his mind, it can't be an afterthought," Simmons says. "It has to be forethought. It has to if this team is going to be better."

 

 

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