'Blue Collar Gang' punches WR clock

Armon Binns

Andrew Hawkins calls the Gritty Dozen that is the corps of receivers the Bengals have gathered "The Blue Collar Gang." Which is the way he burst on to the scene last year in the vacuum left by the black hole consumed by the mega stars that burned themselves out.

"He puts his head down and he's a go-to-work guy," Hawkins said Tuesday as he talked of the emergence of first-year receiver Armon Binns. "That's the mantra of the team right now."

It is also the mantra of the receivers because their mega star nowadays is known to eat from the same lunch pail while performing the same grimy fundamentals.

"Yeah," deadpanned Hawkins as he looked right at A.J. Green sitting in front of his locker and saying loudly enough for him to hear. "Our superstar. (Jordan) Shipley."

Green, resident Pro Bowler and the next beastly NFL receiver in the mold of Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson, had the good grace to laugh. Shipley, who has more NFL catches on the club than anybody but Green, is highly-regarded in the room but there is only one Green.

And this is an equal-opportunity group when it comes to rippage. A few minutes earlier, rookie receiver Mohamed Sanu, seeing Hawkins doing an interview, approached with his cell phone as if it were a tape recorder.

"The problem here," said Hawkins without batting an eye "is that Mo can't read."

Sanu, carrying nearly a 3.0 grade point average at Rutgers and six credits shy of a labor studies degree, feigned outrage as he went to his own media gaggle around his locker.

If it sounds like these Everyman receivers are rather relaxed around each other, it's because they are. That will happen when eight of them have a legit shot to be one of the six that make the final 53-man roster in a receiver's room that has gone from a star-drenched oligarchy to a blank-slate democracy. And when two guys that run sub-4.4 40-yard dashes, free-agent rookies Kashif Moore and Taveon Rogers, are left trying to make the practice squad, well, it's like veteran cornerback Terence Newman says.

"We've got some little stallions," Newman said after Tuesday's practice. "Big guys, little guys."

The only guy that is a lock is Green, the corps' most prolific receiver with 65 catches even though he's played in just 15 games.  

Those that figure to make it are Binns and Brandon Tate, a pair that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden says are "neck-and-neck" for the No. 2 job, as well as third-round pick Sanu and fifth-round pick Marvin Jones.

If the Bengals keep the standard six receivers, that would leave the last spot coming down to the likes of Hawkins, Shipley and 2011 sixth-rounder Ryan Whalen, and all three have huge selling points with Hawkins the most versatile.

A 5-7, 180-pound CFL refugee, Hawkins had a big rookie year last season with quickness in various formations that made him a difficult matchup (just ask Troy Polamalu) with 25 catches, plus his hustle and range on punts and kicks were a major reason the Bengals finished in the top 10 in the NFL covering both.

Before Shipley ripped up his ACL in the second game of last season, he was coming off one of the best seasons ever by a Bengals rookie receiver in 2010 with 52 catches in establishing himself as a reliable and coach's son savvy slot target. With Shipley practicing only in some spots and not at 100 percent, he remains a candidate to start the season on the physically unable to perform list (PUP). Whalen played in just four games and had four catches last season as a rookie, but has some of those Shipley qualities as well as being able to play on the outside.

Gruden isn't looking at the lack of space. He's looking at the plethora of versatility. He's already said he wants to go running-back-by-committee and now it looks like he wants to go Receivers-R-Us behind Green.

"I think you are going to need more than two receivers anyway; the more guys you have that can do it the better you'll be," Gruden said. "Guys get tired. Certain plays are better for certain guys; it's good to have a variety of guys that can line up in a couple of different spots. I think that might be a little bit different than what we had last year. I think all our guys can line up inside and outside and not have a problem mentally. Not saying we did last year, but these guys are all very sharp and good route runners no matter where you put them. "

Which is a nice way of saying his receivers last year weren't as interchangeable. There were a variety of reasons. The lockout. The youth. The comfort level with the offense. But now guys like Binns, Tate, Hawkins and Shipley have settled into the scheme, and Sanu and Jones are bright guys coming out of similar systems. The banter shows these guys enjoy some smart give-and-take.

In previous regimes veterans like Chad Ochocinco and Jerome Simpson could only play one spot. Now after just one rookie minicamp and four practices with the entire team, Sanu and Jones have played all the spots. As they all the receivers are doing.

"The slot position can be, 'OK, I want my outside guys 6-3 or inside 5-10, 5-11.' That's not how it is," said Hawkins, who doesn't want to be pigeon-holed as a little slot guy. "Guys get in there and play. We bounce all over the place. A.J. plays the slot a lot of times. I'm on the outside sometimes."

Hawkins hesitates to say the receivers are smarter this season and simply says, "I think we have the time to prepare now. We're more thorough."

Hawkins says that's because the receivers have the luxury of the voluntary spring workouts, otherwise known as OTAs. He notes that Tate, with New England in 2010, and Shipley, as a rookie here in 2010, are the only receivers that have participated in OTAs.

"I'm working on things I may not have been able to pinpoint during the season because we had Jacksonville this week, or Pittsburgh," Hawkins said. "Now we can just kind of sit back and do the things we need to work on that we didn't have time to last year. When we couldn't break it down as thoroughly as we wanted. In that aspect, it's awesome."

The three guys that everyone seem to be talking about after these practices are Binns, Tate and Sanu with Sanu drawing the most interest because his polished routes fly in the face of his youth.

"Rutgers has made some really tough catches," Newman said. "If you're watching, that's impressive to see coming from college to here and it's kind of slowed down for him. A lot of these guys seem like they know how to work leverage, how to set guys up, and get separation. (Sanu) he's got good body control. He made a catch today on a ball that was kind of behind him and he went up to get it. He did that last week, too."

Sanu, who says one of the reasons he's been able to immerse himself in the offense is because he doesn't have to worry about school, says the biggest adjustment from the Big East to the Big, Bad AFC North is the Xs and Os.

"I'm doing pretty well with it. I'm still thinking but sometimes you just have to go," Sanu said. "Maybe once in a while I make a mistake but I think I'm pretty good with the offense right now and try to learn as much as I can.

"I would say there is a lot thrown at you to comprehend and become a better player. You get to focus more on football."

Sanu is being projected as both a slot player and an outside receiver while Binns and Tate are seen as the guys that can run opposite Green on the outside. Binns has been impressing Gruden since last year, when as a member of the practice squad he would light up the No. 1 defense playing guys like Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson on the scout team.

"And you wonder why he's not playing for us," Gruden said. "Binns has been awesome. I love Armon. He's doing great. He made a couple great catches last week, and made a couple more today. He's a big target, he runs a lot better than people give him credit for, but most of all he's not afraid to go across the middle."

But the coaches have a lot of good things to say about Tate, too. When Tate came to the Bengals via the Patriots and the waiver wire four days before last year's opener, the Bengals knew he was going to return punts and kicks and he responded by bailing the Bengals out of a couple of games by setting the club record for punt return yardage in a season. There was no time to get him ready in the offense.

Yet before he ripped up his knee late in his senior year at North Carolina, Tate was seen as a potential impact NFL receiver and the one year he played regularly, he averaged 18 yards per his 24 catches in New England in 2010.

"I think from a receiver standpoint, confidence-wise of knowing exactly what to do on every play he wasn't quite there yet so we didn't use him probably as much as we should have last year," Gruden said. "But you can see he's a different guy this year as far as mentally. He is confident; he is helping the other guys. He's been a great, great surprise for us so far."

Tate is a good place to start when underlining how important special teams are going to be when determining who stays and who goes. And how other positions could determine what happens at receiver.

For instance, reserve cornerback Adam Jones is viewed as an explosive punt returner, so can he and Tate both make it? Hawkins and Tate would appear to have a leg up on the competition because of their special teams work and Hawkins has joined Tate, Jones, Shipley and Marvin Jones catching punts in the OTAs.

Special teams coach Darrin Simmons is hesitant to have Hawkins do it all on special teams.

"When you're going downfield covering kicks, getting hit, maybe getting an ankle twisted, it's tough to ask you to return punts, too," Simmons said. "It's something you have to keep an eye on. It will be interesting to see as we go."

Simmons has also been very pleased by what he's seen from Tate. Before Tate hurt his knee, he was churning out sub-4.4 40s and he thinks he's back there now after an offseason he stayed in suburban Cincinnati to begin working out at Ignition Sports just two weeks after the season ended.

Simmons wouldn't be surprised.

"I've been very impressed with how Tate has come back," Simmons said. "He's bigger, stronger, faster. He's looked very good."

Hawkins may be just 26 with only a year under his belt. But he knows about competition. He was cut after one practice in St. Louis last season before he found life in Cincinnati.

"That's the name of the game; professional football," he said. "Their job is to find new talent every year and our job is to prove you're one of the guys that can stick around.

"You can't do that. You drive yourself crazy (with the numbers game). If you're going to think about that, then somebody is working on comeback routes. So that's how you get past it; you go out there and work your butt off."

"The Blue Collar Gang" has punched the clock.

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