With the Eagles coming to town, the subject is wide receivers. Rookies and veterans and what might happen Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium as well as next season.
Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson comes into the game as the NFL's second-leading rookie receiver with 38 catches for 15.4 yards per pop, better than leader Eddie Royal's 12 yards per his 52 catches in Denver. Jackson has 37 more catches than Jerome Simpson!(/#), the Coastal Carolina receiver the Bengals took three picks ahead of Jackson at No. 46 in the draft.
The club still thinks it is going to realize Simpson's tremendous upside down the road, but it won't be Sunday. Head coach Marvin Lewis said while Simpson (ankle) and fellow rookie receiver Andre Caldwell (foot) are progressing and are close to returning, they don't look to be ready yet.
"They were making progress, but now they're out of the swing and it's going to take time for them to get back into it when they do get back," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "The injuries prevented us from being able to work them in, but they've shown why we drafted them. We still think they're going to be really good players."
When the Bengals debated the 5-10, 169-pound Jackson, their concern was his slight frame and the fact he didn't show much enthusiasm for the weight room or overall work, period, at California, and the Eagles and Jackson have both said that has been a point of emphasis this season.
The Bengals like their receivers big and tall and since they already had Pro Bowlers Chad Ocho Cinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, they felt they could take a small college project like the 6-2, 200-pound Simpson with measurables that jump off the page and come with a solid, enthusiastic work ethic. And Simpson had come on well enough that he had calmed fears stemming from a rocky spring and training camp.
"He's a good player. He's making plays for them on offense and special teams," Simpson said of Jackson before Monday's practice. "He's from a big program and he's in a good situation, too. He's not behind guys like Chad and T.J. and the great guys we've got here."
Instead of getting injured, Jackson has been able to use injuries to starters Reggie Brown and Kevin Curtis to his advantage. Brown got nicked early enough to put Jackson in the Opening Day lineup and Curtis's sports hernia got him more time. Both starters are back, but Jackson isn't coming off the field. Meanwhile, Simpson's X position is already manned by a five-time Pro Bowler in The Ocho.
Simpson insists, "(Jackson) has taken advantage of his opportunity and when I get my opportunities I'll take advantage of them."
Simpson says he's already taken advantage of watching The Ocho and Houshmandzadeh.
"I'm getting more patient. Just learning the whole game. Just being able to see things better, read defenses better and perfect my route running," he said. "The toughest (adjustment) is coming out of my breaks faster, because it is so much quicker here. The thing is to know what I'm doing out there because then I'll be able to play faster and show my natural ability."
Simpson says he'll stay in Cincinnati during the offseason as well as go out west to throw with quarterback Carson Palmer. Whether Houshmandzadeh is going to be there is a huge question since he's a free agent with no extension. On Monday, he joked with Caldwell and another rookie, Anthony Collins, that when he was gone next year he would pump them up in the media like he did former Bengals and current Colts cornerback Keiwan Ratliff.
"Yeah, I think about it. Anybody would, but it doesn't bother me."
Then he got on Caldwell a little bit in true veteran form.
"He's going to do what I'm going to do this year if I'm not here," Houshmandzadeh said. "They're going to say, 'Andre Caldwell can't run.' You watch. They're going to turn you into a slow guy and he's one of the fastest guys on the team."
It all gets back to Houshmandzadeh's belief he has been "pigeon-holed and stereotyped" as a possession receiver. Caldwell kidded him back with, "Possession."
"I have under 10 yards per catch," said Houshmandzadeh of his 9.5. "They see that (stat) and they figure that's the type of receiver you are. I feel I'm an all-around receiver. I think I can do everything as a receiver. But you get pigeon-holed the way you're used."
But Houshmandzadeh knows he's still the NFL's third-leading receiver with 61 catches and the No. 2 guy, Wes Welker, has just 9.2 yards per catch. And he has said he'd like to come back if it works out and he's looking forward to the next seven games.
"I want to beat Philly. I want to beat Pittsburgh. I hate to lose," Houshmandzadeh said. "I'm going to have fun playing. It's going to be fun Sunday going against (Eagles cornerbacks) Asante Samuel, Sheldon Brown, Lito Sheppard. That's going to be fun for me. I look forward to it."