Updated: 6 p.m.
When the Bengals chose not to match Cleveland's offer sheet on Andrew Hawkins Tuesday, it ended a debate that took a few days and meant a variety of things:
-While they looked for ways to keep their 5-foot-7, 180-pound slot receiver with the 10-foot tall heart, in the end the Bengals couldn't match his niche with a four-year deal that reportedly averages more than $3 million and nearly $5.5 million in the first two years.
With Mohamed Sanu ending the season as the No. 3 receiver/slot receiver, tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert taking turns in the slot, rookie running back Giovani Bernard catching 56 balls, and a renewed emphasis in the running game under offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, the money outstripped Hawkins' potential snaps. The projection had been they'd use him about 15 plays per game, a little too pricey of a niche.
In his break-out year of 2012 when he had 51 catches and four touchdowns, he averaged 38 snaps per game when Sanu missed the last month with a broken foot and before the arrival of Bernard and Eifert. When he came off the injured reserve list last season for the final eight games after severely hurting his foot, he averaged 15.5 snaps per game while making 12 catches.
-The Bengals had hoped Hawkins would be one of their stable of wide receivers. But the move also means Cobi Hamilton, last year's sixth-round pick, is going to get plenty of chances in the spring after a rookie season he impressed the coaches on the practice squad. At 6-2, 205 pounds, Hamilton has an NFL body and tools and spent his rookie season playing the foes' top receiver on the scout team.
-While the coaches coveted Hawkins' speed, they also like the hands and resourcefulness of Sanzenbacher in the slot and he'll be getting plenty of reps there in the spring with Sanu. Sanzenbacher had only 80 snaps and six catches last season and was inactive five of the last six games.
But not to match Hawkins was far from an easy call, as evidenced by the media reports that had the match going both ways. The Bengals highly value Hawkins' desire that saw him become an established NFL slot receiver despite not getting the chance until three years after he left Toledo and included a two-year stint in CFL. They also know he has that rare brew of speed and quickness that have given opponents fits whenever they try to match up with him.
In that break-out season of 2012, Hawkins was tied for 18th in the NFL in yards after catch among wide receivers with the Giants' Victor Cruz at 350 yards, according to profootballfocus.com. Only A.J. Green had more on the Bengals with a 10th-place finish.
Plus, the Bengals felt like they had just made a division foe stronger because Hawkins is the kind of guy they need in the slot between two big receivers.
Hawkins, though, had an idea they wouldn't match.
"I thought it would be tough for the Bengals to match the way the deal was concocted," Hawkins said. "Not when they have guys like A.J. Green, Andy Dalton, Vontaze Burfict, and young guys like that that they have to re-sign."
Also Tuesday, the Bengals brought in Packers tackle Marshall Newhouse for a visit, but they aren't looking to pounce on unrestricted free agents because of draft compensation in the free agency game. Newhouse, a fifth-round pick of the Packers out of TCU in 2010, made his NFL debut and had 29 starts in '11 and 2012 before making just two last season. PFF rated him 31st out of 80 tackles in pass protection when he started for Green Bay at left tackle in 2012.
Hawkins preferred not to discuss how the Bengals used him, but he's very aware that he's leaving a team that has a plethora of weapons and is going to a team where his contract suggests that he's their No. 1 slot guy.
"That's a testament to the kind of roster the Bengals have built,' Hawkins said. "You see it on the defensive line, on the offensive line, the defensive coordinator (to) head coach, the offensive coordinator (to) head coach. You're going to see that kind of stuff happen where (talent leaves)."
But it will be hard to break up a crew of young receivers that broke into the league together in 2011 and 2012. Three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green's closest friend on the team may have been Hawkins. Both were rookies in '11 and they were the Bengals' top two receivers in 2012, when they drafted Sanu in the third round and Marvin Jones in the fifth.
Sanu had the seconds most snaps among Bengals' wide receivers behind Green's 1,078 last season with 763, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Jones was next at 555. Jones' 10 TD season should boost his snaps and Sanu thinks the loss of Hawkins may add to his.
"I think so. It's just another opportunity and I'm going to try and take advantage of it the best way I can," Sanu said. "Losing Hawk is big. He does a lot of different things. The fire he brought in the room, the great words of encouragement he'd give. He was older and been around and he led us in lot different situations.
"We've got plenty of guys in the room that can play," he said. "We'll all come together to make up for the loss. I wish him the best. He's one of the hardest workers I've seen."
The receivers are so close that they were together last weekend to celebrate this weekend's wedding of Jones, which they'll also attend.
"We'll always be close," Hawkins said. "I talked to A.J. and he's sad, but he also said how happy he is for me that I'm getting this kind of chance."
Hawkins, 28, the oldest receiver in the room the past two seasons, left like he came in. With a burst of class. It's not lost on him that several Cleveland regimes ago didn't sign him after a tryout camp and the Rams cut him after one practice before the Bengals took him off waivers the first week of training camp in 2011.
"I don't want to let Andrew go without making note that he has been a very hard working and contributing player," said head coach Marvin Lewis in a news release. "He has set a great example of being a great teammate. But we're fortunate to have a lot of depth at wide receiver, and we're excited to move forward. Our leading receivers from last year will all return, and we have another group who know our system and have earned our confidence that they are ready to see more action.
"It's a given that we will invest in players to the limit of the salary cap, but the system means teams have to make choices, and we don't believe this match, at this time, would serve our goal of allocating resources roster-wide for the best possible team come September."
On Tuesday Hawkins made sure he spoke with Lewis, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, and wide receivers coach James Urban.
"They gave me a chance when no one else did," Hawkins said. "Darrin and Coach Urban were guys that stood on the table for me and I'll be always be grateful to them for that."