Posted: 1 a.m.
Bob Bratkowski, the Bengals offensive coordinator who used to have the NFL's deepest pool of wide receivers at his fingertips, suddenly has just 40 career catches in his system behind T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson.
But in the wake of Thursday's release of wide receiver Chris Henry's 17 touchdown catches, Bratkowski said the Bengals have had contingency plans ever since Henry was suspended for the first eight games of last season.
"Plan B is not always the best case scenario, but you move forward with what you have," Bratkowski said. "It changes our dynamic. The big thing you lose is the vertical speed and he did some real nice things in the red zone for us. Now you have to find and use other sources."
Bratkowski points to what now seems to be the fortuitous signing of Ben Utecht, a pass-catching tight end that allows the Bengals to use more double tight-end sets in place of three-receiver formations.
"That's one place to look. A guy that can catch the ball over the middle," he said.
Right tackle Willie Anderson points to what now seems to be head coach Marvin Lewis' timely Palm Beach Proclamation in pledging his commitment to run the ball.
Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh points to what he always points to: his underused ability to go deep.
"If that's what they want," Houshmandzadeh said, "here I am."
A better running game, a different receiving threat and look, and more vertical plays for Houshmandzadeh seem to be the quickest ways to offset the loss of Henry's strengths. Bratkowski certainly doesn't think there is a veteran free-agent receiver available right now that can help.
"That may change if something happens in the draft or a team lets go of a guy in training camp," Bratkowski said. "But I don't think there's anyone there now and we've got guys who have been here and are already familiar with the offense."
The first option, 5-8, 180-pound Antonio Chatman, doesn't have great size and he has been hampered by groin and hamstring problems the last two years. Glenn Holt is seen more as a special-teamer and while Marcus Maxwell excelled during practice last season, he has just one career NFL catch.
"Our system isn't easy. There is a big-time learning curve," Houshmandzadeh said. "But I've always been a firm believer in that guys will step up. They've got a big opportunity. That's all guys need. Everyone knows I think Antonio can play football. He just needs the opportunity. He just needs to stay healthy."
Johnson's saga continues to rival Eugene Ionesco for Theatre of Absurd honors. After questioning Henry's release on ESPN Radio earlier in the day, he went on NFL Network Thursday night and pretty much agreed with Houshmandzadeh that Henry needed to get his life back together. When Houshmandzadeh asked him if he would join him at practices, Johnson didn't say he would like he did Wednesday.
But now the top three Cincinnati wide receivers from the last three years aren't on campus.
Asked if the inexperience at receiver could get him to some of the voluntary camps in May and June, Houshmandzadeh didn't rule it out.
"I don't know, maybe," he said. "But I'm just coming from two great workouts. I've been having a great offseason and getting in a lot of work. All I know is that if Chad comes in we'll do well on offense, and if he doesn't we will do well because someone is going to step up."
So the Bengals will probably use two of their 10 draft picks at the wide receiver spot, but don't look for any quick fixes there. Rookie receivers notoriously struggle.
Houshmandzadeh and Johnson combined for 49 catches and one touchdown in that first season of 2001. Actually, the last two third-rounders had pretty decent rookie seasons with six of Henry's 31 catches going for touchdowns in 2005, as did four of Kelley Washington's 22 catches in 2003.
Yet don't look for 1,000-yard seasons.
"The biggest problem is adjusting to the speed of the game and the speed of the people covering them," Bratkowski said. "And the type of coverages they see. Everything has a tendency to slow them down."
Although there are no drop-dead-must-have receivers at the top of the draft, the gurus say it is a deep crop that teems through rounds two through seven with a blend of big guys (6-6 James Hardy of Indiana maybe in the second), small guys (Virginia Tech's Eddie Royal maybe in the third), small-school guys (Appalachian State's Dexter Jackson maybe in the fourth and long-armed Jerome Simpson of Coastal Carolina around there), big-school guys (Kentucky's Keenan Burton maybe in the fifth) and kick returners (maybe Utah State's Kevin Robinson in the seventh.)
Jerry Jones, the former Cincinnati pharmacist who publishes the draft survey "The Drugstore List," says the influx of juniors at the top of the draft, such as Michigan State's Devin Thomas, Cal's DeSean Jackson, Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly, Hardy, Michigan's Mario Manningham, and Vanderbilt's Earl Bennett have maybe put a guy like LSU's Early Doucet gettable for the Bengals in the second round.
Jones thinks that Kelly, once the consensus No. 1 receiver, has slipped far enough that the Bengals could get him in the second round. Kelly hasn't been able to run for the scouts with a thigh bruise from the Fiesta Bowl.
"You talk to five different teams and they'll all have a different receiver at the top," said Rob Rang, senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com. "But you can get all kinds of guys that can help in every round."
The Bengals just might not be able to get a guy to help them now. But guys like Houshmandzadeh, who led the NFL in catches, and New Orleans' Marques Colston, who had 11 touchdowns, were seventh-rounders that turned into Pro Bowlers. Houshmandzadeh went 204th overall in 2001 while Colston went 48 slots later five years later at 252 in 2006.
The T.J's and Colstons of this year?
Jones nominates Stanford's Mark Bradford, 6-0, 213, who made the winning catch against USC and lowered his combine 40-yard time from 4.75 to 4.49 at his Pro Day.
Rang offers Utah State's Robinson and Hawaii's Davone Bess, a 5-10, 193-pounder that caught everything that included 108 balls last year.
"It stuns me that he's not rated higher," Rang said. "But he didn't run well. Mid-4.6 and that's going to hurt him. But he's got great quickness and his hands are unbelievable. He's got everything you need."
Jones reminds that the Johnson-Houshmandzadeh-Henry trio came from every little bit of the draft. Johnson was the 36th player taken in '01 and Houshmandzadeh the 204th, while Henry went 83rd in 2005.
According to Scouts Inc., this year that would translate to Hardy (ranked 38th overall) and Houston's Donnie Avery (ranked 82). Robinson, who returned eight kicks for touchdowns, and Bradford aren't rated and could be available late.
ROUND BY ROUND WITH THE WIDEOUTS (Pure Estimations From Various Mock Drafts and Rankings)
FIRST ROUND: Devin Thomas, Michigan State 6-2, 217: At No. 9, the Bengals would probably be taking the draft's first wideout. Not. They've only taken a wide receiver five times in the first round and only one time in the Top 10: Peter Warrick at No. 4 in 2000.
Thomas is rising up the charts because of his size and his speed in the workouts. But he's a JUCO who has played just one year of Division I ball. That makes him a tough top 10.
SECOND ROUND: James Hardy Indiana, 6-6, 218: Rang has some past character questions on him that others don't have. His size and 16 TDs in '07 make him a prototype. Rang likes the maturity and consistency of LSU's Early Doucet, a guy the Bengals could like because of his kick return abilities. Maybe Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly will be here, too.
THIRD ROUND: Earl Bennett, Vanderbilt 6-0, 200: Tough guy that returns kicks and runs good routes. But will the Bengals like Eddie Royal of Virginia Tech and his two punt return TDs last season even better even though he's only 5-9, 180?
FOURTH ROUND: Dexter Jackson, Appalachian State 5-9, 180: His 4.39 speed stunned the Big House. Tough. Has earned the rep of a leader. Yards after catch. But he has small hands, the mags say.
FIFTH ROUND: Jerome Simpson, Coastal Carolina: 6-1, 192 Guys are going to be here on the second day because they're not burners. But this guy is said to have a great work ethic, can jump, and can catch anything.
SIXTH ROUND: Harry Douglass, Louisville 5-11, 170: Fast but takes a lot of shots, and is not big and has a small frame.
SEVENTH ROUND: Kevin Robinson, Utah State 5-11 188: Had some big postseason outings, he's tough, can block and had eight return TDs in his career, so he could go a lot sooner. But size and speed aren't in his corner.