No games with this number

Armon Binns

Back before he was Ocho and he was Hollywood and he was a caricature, if he wasn't the best receiver in the NFL he was one of them who worked hard and brought everyone along for the ride.

Just ask the guy who now wears Chad Johnson's No. 85.

"Chad was my favorite receiver growing up," Armon Binns said as the University of Cincinnati product prepped for Tuesday's practice. "I studied him a lot. Speed is what made him. Especially back in his young days. He has real great feet. Great body control. He worked out with us once and he was super fast, super quick. He was a real cool guy. Friendly and joking around."

Sometimes Binns may have to pinch himself to believe it, but the number belongs to him now and in this era when No. 18 is the Pro Bowl receiver, No. 85 now stands for T.J. Houshmandzadeh-like tough catches and gritty reliability at a formidable 6-3, 210 pounds. If Binns is not the No. 2 receiver, then he and Brandon Tate are 2A and 2B.

Former Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins, now a Bengals Radio Network analyst, is stunned with the improvement he's already seen. A former UC Bearcat himself, Hawkins had already been acquainted with Binns's game. When Hawkins's younger brother, Bengals wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, began telling him about halfway through the season the defense couldn't cover Binns in practice, that surprised him. He thought Binns was a nice Big East receiver, but ... .

When Hawkins came down to the OTAs in the spring, the No. 85 intrigued him right away because he covered Johnson for three springs.

"The strides Armon has made just from college have been huge," Hawkins said. "He had a great burst and I thought he was an above average route runner. I knew he was tall and he didn't have a problem catching the ball at UC. But he didn't drop anything in the OTAs. The interesting thing about Armon is the matchup problems he can give teams in the red zone. You take Armon, and A.J.'s 6-3, and Jermaine Gresham is 6-5 and (Mohamed) Sanu is a 6-3 guy, and across the board it'd be tough for any other team in the league to be that big. Flat out, they need to score points in the red zone and Armon can help them."

Binns is displaying a nice chemistry with quarterback Andy Dalton, a guy that doesn't mind trying to get the ball into tough spots for him. He was Dalton's go-to guy in the mock game's two-minute drill and Binns has come away with a variety of contested catches in practice. Even though he doesn't have an NFL catch, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has seen Binns have some good days against some good NFL cornerbacks.

"He's put some great routes on tape against veteran guys like Leon Hall and Nate Clements and Terence Newman," said Gruden, who has been left shaking his head at some of his catches. "It's the damndest thing. He's a great target for a quarterback. He's got such a big receiving area."

Hawkins isn't easily impressed, but he has been by Binns and Tate even though there are just 24 NFL catches between them. But what he sees on tape is Binns's tough-to-beat brew of size and speed and Tate's savvy.

"There are corners on this team with good technique and you can tell that Tate has been sitting there and studying them and breaking them down during camp," Hawkins said. "He's a very smart receiver. I've been impressed with both guys."

So has Dalton, who notices that this time around he's got a band of heady receivers. He chalks it up as one of the many differences from last season.

"They have very good understanding of what we're doing," Dalton said. "They have a good feel for sitting in windows and different things like that where last year we didn't have that. We're able to do a lot with them just because they have a good understanding of everything that's going on."

Binns is a go-to guy on the field because he's one off the field. "That's the way I was brought up," he says of those days living just off the Rose Bowl parade route in Pasadena, Calif. In the midst of all the changes last season when he got cut by the Jaguars in preseason, he got married back in October and yet settled into the Bengals well enough to become the star of the practice squad.

"The thing you can't put on paper about Armon is that he's such a solid individual," Hawkins said. "That lends himself to improving every day. I know he's going to be spending time with the coaches and the receivers working on getting better."

Part of that growing up included rooting for the Bengals. "I loved the helmets," said Binns, raising his in the air as he walked off the practice field Tuesday.

So it was kind of natural to follow Johnson. It's kind of natural to still follow Johnson. There is a sense of extreme sadness in the locker room as players continue to hear how his life and career has careened off the track in the past week.

"I just hope he can get everything back together so he can get back into the league," Binns said.

Hawkins, who played with Johnson for three seasons, thinks he'll fight back.

"A lot of us have been pushed the other way because of the pressures of the game," Hawkins says. "He's really a good dude with as good heart. You just hope now he sits down and reevaluates what's real and what isn't real."

What's real right now is No. 85 is out there making an impact. Binns is not the first of the great No. 85s, the incomparable Isaac Curtis, another California guy. But no one is. He doesn't have the speed of another Pro Bowl No. 85, Tim McGee. And he isn't Johnson.

"Chad was cold-blooded. A cold receiver. A thoroughbred," Hawkins said.

Binns may have been the most surprised to get the number.

"I didn't think they'd give it out so soon," Binns said. "It's a great tradition. I want to keep it going."

Hawkins has seen enough to think he'll wear it well.

"He looks the part. He plays the part," he said.

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