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Playing the slots

Posted Aug 17, 2012


Jordan Shipley

Updated: 11:15 p.m.

How deep, versatile and different do the Bengals think they are at wide receiver?

On Friday they cut the guy with the second-most NFL catches at the position, the oldest on the depth chart, and the quarterback's closest friend on the team, and all you could hear as Jordan Shipley exited Paul Brown Stadium were the crickets.

"I hate to see him go, but I know the business," quarterback Andy Dalton said after Friday's walkthrough on the practice fields. "It's tough to lose a friend, but I know the talent we have here. The receiver position is probably the biggest competition going on at this camp because we're so talented. That's part of it. But whatever guys make it, I know they're going to be the top guys."

Shipley's slow return from a torn ACL and MCL put him put him on the treadmill in a high-voltage competition, but the move also shows how the philosophy and the scheme has changed with Jay Gruden running the offense.

It was only two years ago the Bengals opted to sign a 36-year-old receiver in Terrell Owens, cut a promising draft pick in Dez Briscoe, and ice a second-round pick in Jerome Simpson heading into his third season.

Now with this form of the West Coast offense designed to be interchangeable, the Bengals are looking at multiple receivers (Andrew Hawkins, Mohamed Sanu, Brandon Tate, Ryan Whalen and even Pro Bowler A.J. Green) that can replace Shipley in the slot with Hawkins the leader in the clubhouse.

Now two draft picks, Sanu and Marvin Jones, are virtual roster locks.

Now the two leading Bengals receivers from last season, Green and Hawkins, are coming off their rookie years. Before they arrived in 2011, the two top Bengals receiving-yardage leaders in the previous three seasons were at least 30 years old. With Shipley turning 27 in December, Hawkins is the oldest wider receiver at 26 and Jones is the youngest at 22, making him six when T.O. made his NFL debut.

But Gruden and his staff have spent the spring and summer extolling the versatility and intelligence of the kids. Sanu played all three spots in his first OTA, Jones two, and Green lined up inside on his first target of the season in last week's opener.

As young as they are, the receivers keep drawing the praise of head coach Marvin Lewis after games. Green's 65 catches lead and the departure of Shipley's 56 makes Tate second with 24 and Hawkins next with 23. In the preseason, Sanu has a touchdown catch and Jones has two catches of plus-40 yards, half of what the other non-Green receivers had all last regular season.

"We have a little bit more of a luxury this year with a lot more guys who can play inside as opposed to last year," Gruden said. "Fortunately for us we have Tate, Sanu and obviously Hawk. Even (Armon) Binns can play inside if we need him to."

The 5-7, 180-pound Hawkins, quicker and faster than Shipley, is the clear No. 1 slot. The 6-3, 210-pound Sanu is bigger and stronger than Shipley. The problem is that Hawkins is one of special teams coach Darrin Simmons's gamers.

"(Sanu) has been doing both very well, but Hawkins right now is our inside guy," Gruden said. "But you're going to need more than one. He gets gassed sometimes. He's up and down on the kickoffs, he's on punt return. We need another one, and a different body type. And Sanu is a great fit. And like I said, Tate can go in there also. You need more than one obviously. Sometimes we have four wideouts in there, so we'll have two slot guys."

That makes the Bengals a lot different in the slot than even last year, when Shipley's injury left them with pretty much only Caldwell and occasionally Hawkins in the slot.

"Hawk makes the best of his abilities. He's so fast, so quick, but he is short. But he does so many great things where he makes up for his size," Dalton said. "We'll have him, we'll have Sanu going in there, we'll have Whalen. Who's ever in there. That's where this offense is going. Not everybody is just playing one position. Everybody can move around a little bit."

How deep?

Shipley won't be the only tough cut. The Bengals have high regard for Whalen, a 2011 sixth-rounder with a Stanford pedigree, but a hamstring injury has kept him out of the mock game and the first two preseason games. Meanwhile, Hawkins, Binns and Tate have motored into a picture anchored by three picks in the past two drafts: Green, Sanu and Jones. Who is the odd man out?

"With a lot of people's flexibility now, unfortunately it didn't leave a lot of room for Ship," Gruden said. "It's not a discredit to Jordan, it's a credit to how well the other guys are playing."

The Shipley decision is one of the tougher in recent memory. Just two years removed from leading AFC rookies with 52 catches and 600 yards, he had become a popular teammate, fan favorite, and a Dalton confidant. Both Texas newlyweds, the couples became close last season and the bond grew in the offseason back home.

"It's the first time a real good friend gets cut, but I think it's going to be good for him," Dalton said. "He'll have a chance to hopefully get picked up and go to a place to learn their system. I think it will be a blessing in disguise for him."

After catching one ball for four yards in the last minutes of the opener last week, Shipley had one ball thrown to him Thursday and didn't have a catch. As he talked to agents Pat Dye and Bill Johnson of the Atlanta-based Profile Sports after the game, he had an ice pack strapped to the knee.

But if the move was tough, it was not exactly a stunner. The writing had not only been on the wall, but on the windows, too, after Gruden broke down the slot position earlier this week.

"He's getting there, but it has to be quicker," Gruden said after Tuesday's practice.

"He's doing everything right. He knows what to do. He'll tell you he's not quite there yet. It's tough. I know how good he was and how good he thinks he should be."

On Friday, Gruden talked about hoping Shipley can catch on elsewhere.

"I think that's the big thing, try to get him somewhere where he can latch on, somewhere where he can learn a system before the opening game," Gruden said. "I think it's the right way to go. He's been nothing but a true professional since I've known him for just a year and a half or so. You hate to lose a guy like that because he's such a good role model for the younger players. He's a young player himself. I know the fans all like him. But right now we have a lot of good players at that position, and something had to be done. Unfortunately for him, it happened today."

Because he's a third-year player and not a vested veteran, Shipley is in the waiver system. Teams have 24 hours to claim him and he'll be awarded via the draft order. With the Bengals picking fourth last year, that's how they got Tate and Hawkins.

What is it their head coach always says? It’s not how you get here but what you do when you get here. Hawkins was cut by the Rams after the first practice of training camp while Tate was waived by the Patriots in the last cut.

“Brandon Tate and I were talking about it," Hawkins said. "No matter the situation is whether you understand it or not it is not a good experience. But you learn from it and keep pushing. Jordan will be just fine because I know the type of guy he is. He will be back in tip-top shape."

After seeing a third-rounder sent packing, Hawkins, a free agent who didn't get a shot until he played in Canada for two seasons, sees it as just the opposite of a vote of confidence.

“I don’t see it that way. It’s still training camp. From the public aspect they might read a little too much. I just have to keep working and on the final day hope I have a roster spot,” Hawkins said. "Plenty of guys who can play slot … most good offenses are (interchangeable). As receivers we try to do as much as possible. The more you can do.”

The Bengals think what it all means is that they're deep, versatile and different at wide receiver.

 

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