The Bengals are looking for more speed at receiver to help take heat off A.J. Green (above) and Marvin Jones.
INDIANAPOLIS - Hue Jackson is on a tear and has been since the end of the season.
Jackson, the Bengals Type A offensive coordinator, is on a mission to sharpen and upgrade the physical mindset that emerged last season, as well as find a burner to take the top off defenses that locked down his passing game.
So when the wide receivers ran the 40-yard dash Saturday at the NFL scouting combine, Jackson sat down at Lucas Oil Stadium as one of the more interested observers and he must have had a field day.
"That first group was the fastest group of wide receivers I've ever seen here," said NFL.com draft analyst Gil Brandt, who has been timing 40s so long he started with a sun dial. "I had three guys who were unofficially under 4.3."
That would have been Miami's Phillip Dorsett, West Virginia's Mario Alford, and Georgia's Chris Conley.
The setting, of course, had more meaning than a Norman Rockwell magazine cover. The Bengals' lack of speed throughout their decimated receiver corps had been exposed on this very field in last month's punch-less Wild Card loss to the Colts.
After A.J. Green and Marvin Jones injured three of their four starting feet last season, Mohamed Sanu wore down with more than 1,000 snaps, and James Wright missed the last month with a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his knee, Jackson has commenced an all-out search for a speed receiver.
And he doesn't care how small or short. Forget the last 14 drafts, when the Bengals took exactly one (1) receiver under six feet tall. (And the 5-11, 190-pound Jordan Shipley showed why when he never recovered from a knee injury and caught just 79 balls out of 118 targets in three seasons for less than 11 yards per catch.)
Shipley couldn't run. That's all Jackson seeks. He already has a raft of 6-2, 6-3, and 6-4 receivers and after losing 5-7 jitterbug Andrew Hawkins last year in restricted free agency, Jackson has admitted on several occasions he underestimated the different dynamic Hawkins provided.
"He has to be a playmaker and fast is what I like him to be. I don't think it's about size. We have big guys already," Jackson said earlier this week of his preference. "You look at A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mo Sanu and James Wright. The guys that are on my team are big guys. I'm looking for a great football player, if we do decide to go that way, who can give us something we don't already have."
Then Jackson had a heck of a day Saturday because the field of receivers who can run seemed to expand with a host of fast times. The 5-10, 183-poud Dorsett came out of Miami as advertised and blistered to an official 4.33-second blur even though he appeared to start late and finish upright. Depending on who you ask, Dorsett is either the next T.Y. Hilton as a dangerous playmaker or a limited specialty player.
"Dorsett worries me," says Rob Rang, draft analyst for CBS Sports. "He runs too fast for his own good some times. He over runs a lot of balls and has to adjust. I think he has a lot of drops. I don't know about him in the cold weather. I think he's a complementary guy."
Dorsett leads the second-tier group of wide receivers that may or may not be there when the Bengals pick in the second round at No. 53. The problem is, speed goes fast and it looks like it is a race to the second round to see if any juice will be left. It is hard to see the Bengals bypassing a tackle or pass rusher in the first round and it is even harder to see a dynamic speed receiver making it to the third round.
"There's not a lot of speed guys, but there's a lot of possession-type receivers," Rang says.
Yet on Saturday, both the big guys and little guys ran fast. And the faster they run, the faster they go off the board. Ohio State's 6-1 Devin Smith probably ran into the bottom of the first round in 4.42 seconds.
But it's tough to call who is going where. NFL Network draft machine Mike Mayock has a second-round grade on Smith, yet says he tracks the deep ball better than any prospect he's seen in years.
The top four receivers ran big and fast as advertised. West Virginia's 6-2 Kevin White ripped off a 4.35, 6-2 teammate DeVante Parker reeled off 4.45, Alabama's 6-0 Amari Cooper bolted to 4.42, and Missouri 's 6-5 Dorial Green-Beckham went for 4.49. That should put them all out of the Bengals' reach.
Auburn's 6-2 Sammie Coats checked in at 4.43, but whether that's dynamic enough to catch the Bengals' eyes remains to be seen. Even the guys who weren't supposed to run fast did, led by the 6-2 Conley's official 4.35 and Maryland's 6-0 Stefon Diggs at an official 4.46.
(Conley is the classic Combine Wunderkind that teams have to be careful about getting seduced by numbers after he set all-time Combine records with a 45-inch vertical leap and a broad jump of 11 feet, seven inches. But he couldn't stay healthy at Georgia, where eight of his 36 catches last season went for TDs.)
At the end of Saturday's workouts, Mayock raved about the group and says it can be as good and as deep as last year's blue-ribbon class. He thinks you can get speed down through the fourth round. Remember, the Steelers rookie that blew past the Bengals for a killing 94-yard touchdown pass last season, burner Martavis Bryant, arrived in the fourth round.
He points to Diggs, a guy he's got projected in the fourth to fifth round.
"He's explosive with speed, return skills, the whole thing…There will be guys this year," Mayock said. "There will be wideouts throughout the draft that will be productive.
They start to get a little smaller at that point, but that won't deter Jackson. Now there's a question about Duke's Jamison Crowder after last month's sterling Senior Bowl. The 5-9, 185-pound Crowder ran only an unofficial 4.56 seconds Saturday and that's not exactly difference-maker speed.
Kansas State's Tyler Lockett is interesting and he might have lasted until the third round until he raced to an unofficial 4.35 seconds Saturday. He still may last to the third, only because he's just 5-9, 181 pounds, but he's magic with the ball in his hands and averaged more than 19 yards per his punt returns while returning two for touchdowns.
"For my money, he's as every bit as good and reliable as Dorsett, but he has better return skills," Rang says. "He's definitely the kind of fast receiver Cincinnati needs."
Mayock had Lockett and Crowder lumped together coming into the combine, indicating that might have been in the third-round range or so. But he says Locket's 4.4 separated himself from Crowder, a slot receiver who is more quick than fast and has great return skills.
"By virtue of his 4.4 and being a little bigger, (Lockett) can play the slot, outside, and return," Mayock said. "He helped himself."
The return game is the elephant in the room. The Bengals have never been known for drafting a returner and are riding with players picked off in free agency (All-Pro Adam Jones) and the waiver wire (Brandon Tate). Tate was thought to be a one or two-year band aid for special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, but he's heading into his fifth season.
"That's an area we would always like to look to like to fill," said head coach Marvin Lewis this week. "Darrin ends up sometimes being a little frustrated about that because don't quite end up getting that filled as well as we maybe could. But we always have an eye to it. Hopefully this year again, things fall into place.
"It's always been an emphasis. It just has to fall into place that that guy's role is a little larger than maybe it seems," Lewis said. "There were great ones last year, there were great ones the year before that. There have been great ones each and every year."
There's not only Lockett to ponder, but also Crowder and his two punt return TDs. Rang also likes Southern Cal's Nelson Agholor somewhere in the second round, a guy with decent size (6-1, 190 pounds) who has the school record with four punt returns for touchdowns. And on Saturday he ran 4.42 seconds.
The fact Agholor comes out of a pro offense helps, too, because with Sanu set in the slot, they'd probably like to get a guy to ease the workload of Green and Jones on the outside.
Alford is only 5-9, 175 pounds, but he ran like the wind Saturday and last season he popped a 100-yard kick return against Alabama. He's probably a third- or fourth-rounder, where some of these guys could slide because of the number of them.
Maybe the Bengals will wait until the third, too, depending on what they do in the first two rounds, particularly if they go offensive tackle in the first round. It would be hard to see the Bengals ignoring the No. 22 defense until the third round, but that could change if they upgrade in free agency.