When Dane Sanzenbacher got his chance last season, he stared down some big catches.
To no one's surprise, particularly his own, slot receiver Dane Sanzenbacher re-signed with the Bengals for a year Tuesday as the club finished up its dealings with three restricted free agents.
They lost one when they didn't match slot receiver Andrew Hawkins' $13 million, four-year deal and they got one when they reached a two-year deal with backup linebacker Vincent Rey. It's believed they were also trying to get a deal for multiple years with Sanzenbacher, but both sides seemed pretty happy the way it came out.
Whether that means he replaces Hawkins at what looks to be the No. 4 wide receiver after making just six catches in 10 games last season, that remains to be played out in training camp. But he's certainly more in the mix now that Hawkins is in Cleveland.
"Whenever you have a guy at the same position as you that gets an opportunity somewhere else, that will open it up," Sanzenbacher said in Tuesday's conference call. "Obviously we've got a deep room and a bunch of guys that are going to be making an impact this year, so I'm excited to still be a part of it. I'm happy for Hawk's opportunity in Cleveland. Obviously it's not with us, but good for him. He's worked hard for that."
Hawkins may be leaving behind a less crowded room, but the depth chart is still quite stuffy. Particularly if the Bengals end up keeping three quarterbacks, which would virtually guarantee they keep just six wide receivers instead of carrying seven like they have at times the past few seasons.
Sanzenbacher is one of the reasons they didn't match on Hawkins even though he caught just six passes last season in 10 games. Other reasons? Tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, running back Giovani Bernard, and three fellow receivers named A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanu. New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is highly regarded, but they're still only going to let him use one ball.
Both Sanzenbacher and Hawkins appeared to be behind Mohamed Sanu in the slot once free agency dawned and while Sanzenbacher doesn't have nearly the moves or the quickness of Hawkins in space, his hands and instincts are highly thought of by the coaches.
"Dane is a player with an instinctive feel for the game," said wide receivers coach James Urban in a news release, "and he should have the chance for more playing time this year than we were able to find for him last year. He's got assets that can help make us better."
If Sanzenbacher keeps playing like he did when he got his shots last year, he's got a great chance at being the fourth receiver. Two of his six grabs were huge. His 23-yarder with one hand down the seam in Buffalo was the Bengals' first fourth-down conversion of at least 15 yards in 14 years. The next week in Detroit his seven-yard catch in the final seconds set up Mike Nugent's winning field goal at the gun.
The fourth WR is key because that means he's active and Sanzenbacher was inactive for five of the last six games last season.
"I think they know who I am as a player," Sanzenbacher said. "I'm going into my fourth year, you learn so much along the way I think just putting that on the field relaxing and playing, I think that will take care of itself."
But there'll be plenty to fend off. The Jason Campbell signing indicates the Bengals may keep three quarterbacks so that they have both a veteran and a rookie to develop behind Andy Dalton. That means six receivers.
if they don't come up with a wunderkind in the draft, return man Brandon Tate would seem to be a lock to be one of the six. Ryan Whalen has always survived with terrific routes and versatile assignments, but he didn't have a catch last season. Cobi Hamilton, last year's sixth-rounder who spent all last season impressing the coaches on the practice squad, is going to get a long, interested look in training camp and may be ready to roster.
But Sanzenbacher, 25, who caught 27 balls as an undrafted free agent out of Ohio State for the 2011 Bears, also has a stake for a spot.
"I've had a sense of comfort in Cincinnati for whatever reason," Sanzenbacher said. "I don't even think necessarily because it's in Ohio and I'm from Ohio. I've just found it to be an easy place to play. It has a lot to do with the people that are around. We have a really good group of receivers. Maybe it's because a lot of our guys are relatively young. More around my age. It's been a fun place to play."
But the Toledo product admitted he didn't have enough comfort with the winter as he spoke from Arizona, where he's finishing his offseason workouts before the Bengals gather April 21.
"I escaped your Ohio winter," he said. "You guys got hammered."
Now it is the numbers game that starts to take a beating as the depth chart unfolds.