Skip to main content

On the fence


Don't forget James Wright, who got hurt in November just as he was emerging as their No. 3 receiver.

MOBILE, Ala. _ After the North practiced at the Reese's Senior Bowl Tuesday, Bengals wide receivers coach James Urban tried to recruit some guys to travel with him to the week's one practice across the bay.

"C'mon," Urban bubbled. "They let you stand on the field over there. It's great."

Down here at Ladd-Peebles Stadium where they don't let scouts and coaches on the field, there are "stands guys," and "fence guys," and Urban is clearly a "fence guy," because he likes to "feel," the receivers.

"I love being down near them because you can feel them. I can feel them run. I can feel their explosion," Urban said.

The Bengals aren't sitting on the fence when it comes to this topic. They need to add speed at wide receiver after a season they saw their once bountiful depth carved by attrition, injury, and inexperience.

It doesn't take much.

Speedy slot receiver Andrew Hawkins signed with Cleveland before the season when the Browns offered the unmatchable. A.J. Green, the team's best player, had six games with no catches because of injury. Starter Marvin Jones never took a snap with two foot and ankle surgeries. Rookie James Wright never took another snap after he emerged in November as the No. 3 receiver with a PCL tear in his knee. Slot receiver Dane Sanzenbacher is a free agent whose season ended suddenly with a concussion after just nine catches.  

When they had to go to the street and get Greg Little in October and 2013 sixth-round Cobi Hamilton's first NFL game consisted of 28 snaps with no catches in the Wild Card Game, the need for depth and speed was clear. Little took just four snaps in a game where they were desperate.

"This year for us with the injury bug, that was never more evident," Urban said. "It all works itself out. People look at a full roster and say, 'There aren't enough balls.' There are always enough balls. If you get team-first guys."

They've got enough guys getting healthy that it's like getting some receivers in the supplemental draft.

No one is saying it, but there is a bit of uneasiness as they wait for Jones to return. His foot has now been cut into twice after he had ankle surgery and a broken bone in his foot and, simply put, no one knows if that is going to impact his game-breaking speed until they see him in the spring.

But the first returns are encouraging and the Bengals don't appear to be looking to take a wide receiver in the first round or even the second round. But after that would seem to be an opportune time. They got Rutgers wide receiver Mohamed Sanu in the third round of the 2012 draft and while he had an MVP-type first half of the season in Green's absence and is a splendid slot receiver, as the season went on his production dipped as his snaps rose on the outside.

"The receivers position was strength before the season started," said offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. "(But) Marvin doesn't make it. It starts to wear and tear the other guys. Maybe you're not as fresh and as good as you thought you could be. We get these young guys back and hopefully add some more juice to the group. A lot of the pieces are there."

Urban was on the fence down here three years ago when he felt Marvin Jones "whoosh," by him during the drills with speed and range. The scouts had alerted him to this diamond-in-the-rough receiver from the University of California. A 6-2, 195-pound bolt of energy and Urban loved the feel. They grabbed him in the fifth round in 2012 with, of all things, the pick from New England for Chad Johnson, and a year later Jones had 10 TDs, a number Johnson reached just once.

Now the search is on for the next Jones, a guy with size and speed. The problem is if a guy has too much of both, he's not getting out of the first two rounds. Jones only survived because his tape at Cal suffered at the hands of inconsistent quarterback play, a big reason running mate Keenan Allen hung around until the third round the next year before he had a Rookie of the Year season.  

But CBS Sports draft guru Rob Rang says there isn't a lot of speed in this year's class and the Senior Bowl is a reflection. For instance, the North isn't overflowing with guys, although they do have Ohio State's national champion game-breaker Devin Smith.

At 6-1, 200 pounds, Smith isn't quite as tall as Jones but he can get down field in a hurry like he can. He hasn't run the 40-yard dash since 2012, but he figures if repeats that 4.33-second performance at next month's NFL scouting combine, he's got a good shot at the first round. He had some drops Tuesday, but he's clearly a battle-tested guy that brings a lot to the table. Rang thinks he'll be there in the third, but with the Bengals picking No. 21, how late?

"Devin Smith is straight line (speed) guy. He had a solid practice for the first day," Rang said. "I want to see a little more of the underneath stuff. That's what he was so famous for at Ohio State. (Drops) are kind of the knock on him. I see him as a third-rounder, but he's got speed and there's not a lot receivers in this draft with straight-line speed. Maybe he's a late second."

Washington State wide receiver Vince Mayle, 6-3, 2-19 pounds, has the size and Rang thought he had a good enough practice Tuesday to move up, but can he run? Certainly Duke's Jamison Crowder can run, but the Bengals have never gone for tiny receivers in the draft and he's just 5-9, 175 pounds.

"He's quick. He caught the ball very well today," Rang said. "He's a good route runner. But he's limited because of that size. If you take him, you have to have a plan in mind."

The Bengals' plan seems to look for another Jones. Urban stood close enough here to Jones three years ago that when he left he knew he had to find out more about him. The scouts have supplied Urban with tape of the guys in this game, so he'll be putting them to the "Marv Test."

"You could see Marv could track the ball and he had the long arms, the big hands," Urban said. "You could see the things he needed to work on.  Techniques and some route-running stuff, the things he's worked so hard to clean up.  You could see the explosion.  He can run, he can go. And Marv was off the charts as a kid. All he had to do was clean up some stuff to play every down in the NFL."

At the moment, Urban isn't worried about personality or background. "This week is purely physical," he said.

"The practices are awesome. There are so many one-on-one drills and you can see the guys against NFL-caliber corners and there is a lot of man-to-man stuff, so you get to see them do the things you want to see them do."

Urban hears only good things about Jones' recovery from director or rehab Nick Cosgray, which makes life on the fence a little easier. Word is Jones is headed to California soon to work out fully for a few weeks and he's already looked good at Paul Brown Stadium.

"Nick is the best in the league and he's very confident." Urban said. "Nick has him doing all the explosion things."

Which is exactly what Urban is looking for down here on the fence.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.