Cody Core must have had a premonition.
Core, the wide receiver who led the Bengals offensive players last season with 189 plays on special teams, switched trainers, traveled to Nashville and spent his offseason working on strengthening his legs and endurance. Then 45 minutes into the season Saturday he saw himself promoted to No. 2 wide receiver with A.J. Green and John Ross on ice.
With murmurings of Green missing at least six weeks, the Bengals not saying anything definitively until he meets with a foot specialist Monday and Ross possibly staring at two weeks off with a hamstring issue, a bunch of things look to be certain at the end of Sunday’s practice.
For one thing, Core, Alex Erickson, Josh Malone and the rest of the Bengals’ basically untried veteran receivers behind Green and Tyler Boyd are going to get a slew of snaps in pre-season practices and games. They need them. Core, Erickson and Malone are in their combined 11th season and have 75 catches and three TDs.
For another thing, head coach Zac Taylor isn’t going to wait on his rookies. One of the reasons he got the job is because he’s got an open mind on young players and with Green out of the spring and Ross in and out, Taylor was already encouraging his coaches on seeing what they could get out of their pair of intriguing undrafted free agents in Troy wide receiver Damion Willis and Nebraska’s Stanley Morgan.
Check out the best photos from training camp on July 28, 2019, fueled by Gatorade.
And the 6-3, 204-pound Willis, who had seven catches of at least 40 yards last season, had a nice day Sunday on some significant snaps before he cramped up. Quarterback Andy Dalton found him and he won’t be the only kid you see at receiver. For the first time since 2007 they didn’t draft a receiver (who would have thought this would happen on July 27?), but Morgan, has also caught their eye. And not because he and Taylor both hold single-season Cornhuskers records.
“I think Damion has been really impressive,” Taylor said. “He certainly was impressive there and the beginning of practice and then was just out because of some cramping at the end of practice. Those guys have got to make sure that they get their bodies right these next couple of days.”
He hasn’t had to sell receivers coach Bob Bicknell.
“It's fun to watch these guys come out and be who they were,” Bicknell said. “When you get a kid and evaluate him and think things about him if they come in and they're exactly who you think they were then you're pretty happy with that. I'm happy watching them play.”
Suddenly, Tyler Boyd, who signed a $43 million extension last week as the No. 2 receiver, is back to where he always was before he got drafted. No. 1. But he reminds you he’s been there before when Green missed the last half of the season with an injured right big toe.
“I felt pretty comfortable in that area. I try to keep everybody around me motivated and confident,” Boyd said. “If they drop the ball or something, it's cool, bro. You just make the next play. I just want to make sure no one puts their head down. Just continue to go out there and make plays.”
Remember, except for those 45 minutes on the field Saturday, Green hasn’t lined up on the line of scrimmage since Dec. 2, so that’s been status quo lately. And Dalton was throwing to somebody who was catching it. Voice of the Bengals Dan Hoard had him 12 of 14 in 11-on-11 and seven of eight in seven-on-seven.
“I feel pretty comfortable with it because during OTAs A.J. was kind of limited and John was still going through some things,” Boyd said. “Josh, CC and Alex, a lot of the guys, we've been preparing with just us the whole time. Just building our chemistry with Andy. I feel pretty comfortable with Josh and any other guy out there. It's hard to fill A.J.'s shoes, but if we can get guys like Josh to continue to make plays like he's doing, I believe we'll be fine.”
They’ll certainly get their chances. Bicknell, who would probably give back all 30 pounds he lost during summer vacation if he had Green for the opener in Seattle, likes that his receivers are fluent in the offense and know what to do. Taylor mentioned the same thing.
“The back end of that receiver room, other than our three guys who have typically been starters, I think have really shown great attention to detail,” Taylor said. “Those guys have really come out. Obviously I notice it a little bit more. I’ve been in the receiver room before, so those guys, I tend to keep an eye on. I’ve been really impressed, really, with everybody in that room these first two days. Their attention to detail has been great. The mental errors have been extremely few and they’ve really competed and caught a lot of balls. Done a good job through the first few days but they’ve got to keep that up.”
Erickson says Taylor’s offense gives everyone a shot because it highlights versatility and has everyone doing everything. For instance, Auden Tate, last year’s 6-5 rookie camp phenom, learned the Z receiver position during the spring to go with playing X last season. Erickson, the most productive of the players behind Green, Boyd and Ross (38 career catches on 11 yards per), is not just a slot man in this set.
“There are all kinds of things we do in the run game and everyone is asked to do that. Not just one or two positions, it’s all three,” Erickson said. “Guys are moving all over with condensed splits, wide splits, motion, jet sweeps, faking jet sweeps, everyone is really involved in the blocking scheme. We’re really involved in everything.”
Like Core, Erickson is going to have a big load this camp, but special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons says he won’t over use Erickson since he knows he’s already his No. 1 returner, where last season he had the second most kick returns in the league and a career-high 10.6 yards on punt:” I know what Alex can do.”
Malone and Core are the X-factors. Bicknell thinks their time has come, two fast, athletic guys they’re hoping can put it together.
“Cody does lot of good things,” Bicknell said. “He’s good on special teams. He ran an unbelievable route on a deep one today. He can run, he’s big, he just has to catch it more consistently in games and all that. I like what he’s been doing.”
As for Malone, who has just seven catches on 22 career targets, Bicknell says, “The reality of it is he had some injuries. He had some things that happened to him, which just happens in this league, that's part of the deal. I felt like there are a lot of things he's done well. Coming back both in the offseason and during the preseason he's done a really good job. He's one of those guys who gets a bunch of reps now and every day we hopefully every day we keep seeing the progression.”
But it was Boyd who probably had the best advice for him as he draped his arm around him in Malone’s post-practice interview session. Malone is headed into his third year. Boyd went into his third year off a season of just 22 catches before he went out and racked up 76 for more than 1,000 yards.
“Just be patient. There was nothing I could do when I was going through my year,” Boyd said. “But once the opportunity comes, you've got to take full advantage. You've got to dominate once you get in there, let everybody know who you are, what your name is on the back of your jersey. From there on out you're going to feel accountable and you're going to feel trustworthy.”
You’ll be seeing plenty of these guys.