Mohamed Sanu ran away from the Panthers for 120 yards last season.
Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, the Bengals' most versatile player, warns the faithful not to sleep on handyman Rex Burkhead.
Burkhead, a running back who doubles as a slot receiver, looks to be one of the top storylines when training camp opens with a 3 p.m. Friday practice on the Paul Brown Stadium practice fields. Sanu, a slot receiver and former All-New Jersey QB who has completed all five of his NFL passes for an average of 35 yards for two touchdowns, doesn't doubt that Burkhead can throw, too.
"Don't be fooled by Rex. He can do it all," Sanu says. "That's my guy. Rex and I are similar kinds of players with similar personalities."
But after spending his offseason with "The Foot Doctor," who has studied at the feet of Chad Johnson, Sanu is planning to wake up some people himself after tweaking his offseason regimen with Seth Minter.
"The only thing that can stop me is me," says Sanu, which isn't a Chadian boast but a nod at his development in what he calls the chess game.
"Everything in athletics begins with the foundation of footwork," says Minter, Sanu's footwork coach. "There's also speed, agility, getting in and out of breaks. It makes you more explosive with a better change of direction."
After last season, Bengals receivers coach James Urban urged Sanu to work on his quickness and ability to separate from cornerbacks. When Sanu signed up with Minter this winter, it reminded Urban, a former University of Pennsylvania assistant, of his players who got Bs and signed up for tutors.
"I asked them why and they said they wanted an A,' Urban recalls. "That's what Mo is doing. He had good feet, but he's going to this guy to try and get to great. Mo knows his feet are a strength. He wants to make them more of a strength."
Johnson, the Bengals all-time leading receiver, is thought to have the quickest feet ever for a wide receiver more than 6 feet tall. Johnson himself says those closest to him flying off the line of scrimmage in today's NFL are 5-10 Antonio Brown and 5-11 Odell Beckham.
"That's impossible. I don't think that will happen again," the 6-1 Johnson says of his size and quickness. "I was tall, but I played a small man's game. We have some individuals who have my style of play. As for lateral movement and quickness and getting in and out of breaks, that's who they are."
Minter says he met Johnson two years ago (they have the same business manager) and incorporated Johnson's style of low-to-the-ground play and high-burst results into his coaching. He often quotes Johnson's mantra: "They don't pay me for my hands, they pay me for my feet."
The coaching has resonated with Sanu and Urban has enjoyed watching the rather funky drills posted on-line He has asked Minter if he can use any of them.
"I don't know how Mo can remember to do it all. There are cones, dots, circles," Urban says. "Two feet in the circle. Two feet out of the circle. One foot in, one foot out as you go into this maze. Mo takes a shine to that."
It doesn't surprise Urban in the least. Sanu's receivers coach at Rutgers is current Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck, a guy that Urban remembers also coming up with exotic drills.
"Many creative and good, but a little off the wall," Urban says. "Mo liked them. I think Mo likes to do a little different stuff (in the offseason)."
After last season's career-high 56 catches for 790 yards, Sanu is coming into this camp with very specific goals, particularly in the yards after catch department. According to profootballfocus.com, Sanu was 29th in the NFL in YAC in 2014.
"My footwork is good, but I want it to be so precise getting in and out of breaks." Sanu says. "Stopping on a dime…It's a chess game with the DBs and if I win that chess game then I'm closing the gap between them. Climbing on their toes, using my body to my advantage. Taking a little five-yard out for 30, 40 yards. Being able to catch a slant and take it the house. Just make the little plays big plays so it's just not catch and tackle or catch and stumble."
With Sanu assuming the No. 2 receiver position of the sidelined Marvin Jones, he was arguably the team's MVP in the first half of last season when four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green didn't make a catch in four games because of injury and the Bengals still went 5-2-1. In that stretch Sanu had 39 catches for 628 yards and four TDs.
But in the last eight games of the season he had just 17 catches for 162 yards and a TD. There were a variety of reasons, Urban says. The coverage started to tilt to him, along with the inordinate number of plays he ran for a receiver corps that was wiped out.
"The guy played nearly 1,100 snaps. Unbelievable. Offensive lineman numbers," Urban says. "What happens is he's playing inside and outside and all over the place. We need to be able to monitor that and track that to help him stay as fresh as possible as long as possible. And he's done that by going into this elite conditioning. He looks awesome."
Sanu has stayed around Cincinnati a good deal of this summer flexing his muscles. The return of Green and Jones to health has him thinking one thing as he returns primarily to the slot.
"Single coverage," Sanu says. "They can't double all three of us."
And there is the matter of Burkhead. Since Sanu also has averaged 5.1 yards per 16 carries, he knows they may not only line up in the slot together, but also in the backfield.
"Exactly," Sanu says. "Wouldn't that be something?"