Tyler Boyd, the Bengals crafty and clever Sultan of Slot, heads into his seventh season doing to the franchise's all-time receiving list what he does in the middle of the field.
He's patiently slithering and creating through the crevices left by the greats to leverage his own legacy. By the time October arrives, he should be the seventh Bengals wide receiver and second youngest to 400 career catches since he needs only a dozen.
And by the time of November's bye, Boyd and his calendar-reliable hands should have wriggled into the top five past Ring of Honor candidates Isaac Curtis (416) and Cris Collinsworth (417) as well as feel their way through the decades to become the ninth Bengal to reach 5,000 yards.
"He's one of the best. One of the best," says quarterback Joe Burrow of Boyd's innate sixth and seventh senses to become available when needed most.
"He's not the fastest or most explosive guy out there. But he finds ways to get open and he understands how to get open in the middle of the field and zone coverage."
By the time December's stretch run gets here, Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh may be the only Bengals with more career catches on third down since he averages about 20 per year.
"That's huge. Those guys are legends here," says Boyd of all the names. "They'll always be remembered. Just to have my name among those guys, it's an honor."
But he's never been a numbers guy. The guy who Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins calls "Chihuahua," because he's endlessly yapping with high energy, is a Dog, pure and simple. And in a locker room these days, that's the highest of compliments.
"You know me," Boyd says. "I'll just go play."
Since we know Boyd, we know he's tougher than the hardscrabble streets he conquered in Clairton, Pa., along the Monongahela River on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. Straight up. Long before he beat man, zone or anything else. He grew up watching a lot of Bengals-Steelers. A lot of Carson Palmer throwing to Johnson and Houshmandzadeh, his soul mate in the slot.
"For sure. I watched him and Chad and Palmer. They were the main guys," Boyd says. "If I didn't watch the game, I knew about them. Seeing my name under theirs or above them, where ever, it's special. At the end of the day, guys don't really get the opportunity to play in the league and I was fortunate enough to play so long and be with those top tier guys."
Now, the person in the family who is the numbers guy is Tonya Payne-Scott, his mother, the former social worker who now runs the youth league Boyd used to dominate. Thanks to them and that play in Baltimore nearly five years ago (Tonya calls the donations that poured in from Buffalo fans "The Touchdown Money,") the Western Pennsylvania Youth Association has virtually tripled while adding basketball and spring football with those seed bucks.
When the pads come on in July, they'll have 90 football teams ranging from five and six years old to 13 and 14 in 16 towns throughout Allegheny County. Before COVID hit, they had 56 basketball teams. The parents have to come up with fees, but Boyd is the main contributor.
Especially since he signed his deal three years ago. Now Western PA can travel.
"Since pretty much the contract, we've been able to take our league champions and all-star teams to national tournaments. It's made it a lot easier," Tonya Scott-Payne says. "We won two national championships down in Florida back in December. Before the Super Bowl."
Tonya has the numbers in her head. They took two busses to Florida at $12,500 per bus. They had three players and a coach in a hotel room. They fed them for a week. While her son was helping put the Bengals over the top, he was doing the same back home.
"And from time to time he'll donate uniforms and equipment," she says.
Those are probably the only numbers Boyd hears about. Not 400 catches.
And it turns out there was a youth player watching him like he watched Chad and T.J. There was this kid growing up on the outskirts of New Orleans who would one day join Boyd and Burrow and Tee Higgins and Joe Mixon and all the rest to take the Bengals to a Super Bowl.
"When I was younger, I was actually a big fan of his. While I was growing up I was watching him at Pitt," says Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase.
"He played like Megatron at the time. He did a lot of jumping over people making acrobatic catches. I was in high school. I was watching a lot of stuff. I wasn't really watching to pick up anything. I was just watching to see what I liked and who amazed me."
When he got to Cincinnati last season, Chase was no doubt amazed again because Boyd had re-tooled his game. No longer a gymnastic outside receiver, he's one of the NFL's best slot receivers.
"The best," says Bengals wide receivers coach Troy Walters. "For what he does for us."
What he does for them is move the first down sticks. According to Elias, Boyd has 117 third-down catches, currently fifth on a list they've been keeping for only 30 years. It's headed by Chad Johnson (173), Houshmandzadeh (154), A.J. Green (131) and Carl Pickens (128).
Since Boyd came into his own in that final minute of the 2017 season in Baltimore when he and Andy Dalton converted a fourth-and-forever moment to knock the Ravens out of the playoffs, put the Bills in and expand the Western PA youth league, he has the 10th most catches in the NFL.
According to Pro Football Reference, that is 312, third among AFC slot receivers behind the Chargers' Keenan Allen (407) and the Dolphins' Tyreek Hill with 343.
"He can catch some really crazy balls in the slot," Higgins says. "He's one of the best slots in the game. He set a high standard for me when I came in. He treated me like all the other guys, not like a rookie, and that really helped me. He's everything you can ask for in a leader. He's never negative, always positive. That's just who he is. A positive guy."
Even after the most negative play of his career.
Start that no one has more reliable hands in the league than Boyd. In the last two years Pro Football Focus has him for just three drops in 208 targets. And just one last year.
With 6:23 left in the season. With the Bengals leading the Rams, 20-16, in Super Bowl LVI. With Burrow staring at a third-and-nine from their own 40.
Boyd, who PFF said was second behind only Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp in yards after catch in the slot last season, tried to do exactly that. Burrow went to him over the middle and cornerback David Long was waiting for him at about the 47. About two yards shy. Boyd knew he had to make a move to make it. He did, but he made it before he caught the ball and dropped it.
"I was looking up the field trying to get that first down, man. It just came back and bit me in the ass. It always catches up you," Boyd says. "Just that one time. You kind of nonchalant it, thinking you're automatically going to catch it and do what you always do. Things don't really work that way. That's why you always take the details on. Stay focused. Do the little things right.
"It was a huge time in the game. Maybe I get the first down, maybe not. But I'm so confident in Joe and so are our coaches and our team, we would have had (fourth) and two. Manageable. And more than likely we would have went for it if we didn't get it. That one thing doesn't take away what I've done the whole year … I don't let things like that decide who I am as a man and how I go about my business. I took it a little hard for sure. We ended up losing. But I'm a straight forward guy and I'm going to shake it off and go to the next."
That means staying positive, staying upbeat. Always looking up the field. Did you see the Bengals open the season for the first time ever against the Steelers?
"I love that," Boyd says. "Especially playing them here."
Straight forward and straight ahead.
That's where Boyd thinks his game is. Where it should be. He turns 28 during the bye (when he gets 400, he'll be a few months older than Green was) and he's working on those details.
"The hots (reads), my splits," Boyd says. "Figuring out ways how I can win more easily than just going out there."
It gets no better than when you have a quarterback that has the same enormous belief in your acumen that you have in his. Boyd calls Burrow "a magician."
"He's so good at diagnosing. He always knows where he's going with the ball. You can't play man against him."
Burrow on Boyd: "What's underrated about him is he doesn't always verbalize it, but he's very good at understanding what's asked of him on every route."
During the whirlwind offseason, Tonya couldn't make it the night of Clairton youth football banquet, where he made a special guest appearance. But she heard all about it. How he stayed for as long as there was a kid asking to take a picture with him.
Like Burrow says.
"He understands the nuances of the position."