Of all the receivers Armon Binns enjoyed simulating last season on the Bengals scout team, perennial Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald gave him the biggest blast during the week the Bengals prepared for the Cardinals.
"He was my favorite receiver when I was in college and it was great running the same routes he does," Binns recalled Monday. "Posts. Verticals. Double moves. Going outside and inside. That was a lot of fun."
The Bengals got such a kick out of watching Binns play Fitzgerald (not to mention Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace, Baltimore's Torrey Smith, Houston's Andre Johnson and the rest of the opponents No. 1 receivers) that the Bengals think if he shows up this spring just being himself that he'll be a factor in the wide receiver picture that needs a No. 2 to fill out.
"I think he can do a lot more than maybe people anticipated him doing," says Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. "If he shows up in shape and in the right frame of mind, I foresee him making a major impact with our offense next year."
Gruden would have been pleased if he'd been at the University of Cincinnati Pro Day last Friday and saw Binns running routes for Bearcats quarterback Zach Collaros. Binns was not only in shape and into it, he flashed the things NFL receivers need to be No. 2s.
Hands. Body control. Quickness.
With the Bengals sitting pretty in a draft fraught with No. 2 receivers, they may already have one that was undrafted last year. When Binns describes how his game is similar to that of No. 1 receiver A.J. Green, they sound like they could be nice playbook-ends.
"I think we both like to go up and attack the ball at the top of the route," Binns says. "We like to go get it and we're not afraid to come back for it."
After not seeing much time in Jacksonville's camp, Binns surfaced on the Bengals practice squad two weeks after the Jags cut him on the eve of the season.
"I think he's got a great feel on how to get open," Gruden says. "He's a big guy and a great target and the quarterbacks like him because he's such a good target and he's proved he can run inside and outside routes."
The opportunity to be Green's running mate is as open as the chance to be Obama's is closed. With Jerome Simpson pleading guilty to a drug charge that could bring at least a four-game suspension, there is a vacancy that could be filled from within by Binns or Brandon Tate, or from without by a third-round pick or better.
Remember when the Bengals chased Antonio Bryant and Terrell Owens in 2010 free agency? One was injured and the other played out and they ended up shelving youth in the form of icing Simpson and cutting rookie Dez Briscoe. The Bengals don't look ready to go that way again with young talent like Binns waiting to show he can run more than Steelers routes.
"Now we just have to see if he can run our stuff," Gruden says with a laugh. "During the season you don't get a great chance to look at the young guys with your own terminology and plays. They have to emerge and make plays on the scout team. And he did that. He really came on. He got into great shape and made a ton of plays. Then we got him some reps in our offense and he's really been a great surprise for us. We're hoping the momentum carries into this season."
While Binns opened eyes Keeping up with The Johnsons, his most impressive acting job may have been when the Bengals prepared for the Texans the first time during the regular season and he took on the role of Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels.
"The defensive coaches were trying to get me to play different guys and that gave me confidence because that meant they liked the look I was giving them," Binns says. "I feel as comfortable inside as I do outside and I think they showed that confidence in me being able to do both when they lined me up at tight end for the defense to go against."
Binns did his damage reading off cards in practice before each snap and Gruden knows it's a different deal when a receiver has to do it on his own. But he also knows Binns was a huge playmaker for the Bearcats.
"For me, it's all the same; it's running routes," Binns says. "Whether I'm seeing it and or hearing it in the huddle. It's the same thing. You have to get open."
Since Binns spent all but the last two games on the practice squad (when he was on the roster but inactive), he barely took any time off after the Jan. 7 Wild Card loss to the Texans. After about a week, he headed back up to Clifton, along with fellow Bengals and former Bearcats wideout Vidal Hazleton, to help Collaros get ready for the pros. It was that same willingness to put in time Binns showed during the season when he and practice squad quarterback Zac Robinson would straggle off the practice field last with quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and receivers coach James Urban.
"I'm just trying to hone some of the basics," Binns says. "I'm really working on my feet and trying to get them quicker. Trying to get in and out of my breaks quicker."
After Friday's workout Binns headed home to Pasadena, Calif., to get some R&R. But it turns out he and Robinson may just keep on throwing. Binns just got a text from him saying he was in California, too, and why don't they find each other and wing it?
"That's fine by me," Binns says.
The Bengals may not have a timeline, but Gruden says Binns is in line.
"I think he'll be in the mix next year," Gruden says. "No doubt."