In some major American sports, people don’t expect a lot in a given season from that year’s crop of rookie players. This was once a truth of the NFL. At a time, first-year players were generally held off the field, and certainly didn’t face pressure to immediately succeed.
That’s no longer the case in today’s league. Teams like New Orleans – who rejoined the playoff picture on the back of an elite rookie class – can testify to that. That’s not exactly because the learning curve for college players has gotten any shorter or easier. It’s just a product of our time, for one reason or another.
Diagnosing that is beyond the scope of this article – point is, in 2017, rookies can bring a team immediate fortune. The Bengals finished the 2017 NFL Draft with eleven rookie additions to their roster. By the end of the season, they had sixteen split between the roster and injured reserve.
This includes eight first-year players on the offensive side of the ball. Those eight will be graded below, based on their contributions to the 2017 season, weighed against the Bengals’ investment to obtain them. The companion article regarding defensive players can be found here.
John Ross (Wide Receiver, Washington – 1st Round, 9th Overall)
- Games Played: 3
- Receptions: 0
- Carries: 1
- Rushing Yards: 12
- Fumbles Lost: 1
The disappointment that was Ross’ rookie season is a tired story in the Bengals fandom, I’m aware. Mentioning his healthy scratch games would be beating a dead horse. If you’re inclined to look at it again or otherwise need to catch up, here’s a covering of the Ross saga from Brandon Sysak. There’s no need to rehash all of it here.
Ross, through some fault of injury (but not by an excusable amount), had possibly the worst season of any first-round pick in 2017. When considering the expectations that being the ninth overall pick in the draft come with, he might’ve had the most disappointing season of any rookie period.
There’s no indication that Ross won’t be just fine going forward, but his 2017 season was, by all metrics, a dud.
Joe Mixon (Halfback, Oklahoma – 2nd Round, 48th Overall)
- Games Played: 14
- Carries: 178
- Rushing Yards: 626
- Receptions: 30
- Receiving Yards: 287
- Touchdowns: 4
- Fumbles Lost: 2
There was a lot of hype around Mixon through the draft process – his perceived value as a player was far higher than the slot he fell to would indicate. Such is the nature of off-field incidents as egregious as his.
For any other second-round pick, Mixon’s numbers would look fine. His 913 scrimmage yards are nothing to scoff at. He has as many rushing yards per attempt (3.5) as Le’Veon Bell did as a rookie in 2013. Mixon has a high ceiling as a player, and looks perfectly on track to reach it as soon as Year 2. He just didn’t get there in Year 1.
Is that on Mixon himself, the coaching staff not featuring him, or the offense for not running enough plays? Likely a combination of the latter two, but the fact remains that Mixon left production on the table. He can’t get the best grade, knowing that.
Josh Malone (Wide Receiver, Tennessee – 4th Round, 128th overall)
- Games Played: 11
- Receptions: 6
- Receiving Yards: 63
- Carries: 2
- Rushing Yards: 2
- Touchdowns: 1
What are reasonable expectations for a fourth-round rookie receiver?
Malone finished fourth among Bengals receivers in offensive snaps – behind A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell, and Tyler Boyd, respectively. He finished a distant third among receivers in special teams snaps, behind Cody Core and Alex Erickson. This isn’t an indictment on Malone – it means the coaching staff has enough veteran receivers to go around. As the Bengals are wont to do with rookies, they let Malone fester on the sideline behind more experienced players.
Malone’s six catches ranked ninth among Bengals players – on the team that ran the fewest offensive plays in the NFL. His lack of production doesn’t reflect a low return on investment. It just reflects where the Bengals are with the position.
In a couple years, Malone could fill the roles of Core, Boyd, or LaFell in this offense. A perfectly viable third option in a future where Green is still present and Ross pans out. That’s good, for what the Bengals spent on him.
Mason Schreck (Tight End, Buffalo – 7th Round, 251st overall)
Schreck suffered an MCL injury in the Bengals’ third preseason game and has yet to play a meaningful snap. Does that mean he failed, from a grading perspective? That’d hardly be fair to him – and considering his late draft slot, hardly reflective of expectations for him. Schreck was supposed to develop, perhaps on the practice squad, as an injury contingency plan. It’s entirely possible he made progress in that regard despite being on injured reserve.
We just won’t know until we see him on the field again.
Cethan Carter (H-Back, Nebraska – UDFA)
The easiest way to gauge Carter’s progress will be by what the team does with Ryan Hewitt in advance of the 2018 season. It was a surprise to see the veteran H-Back face serious competition for his job in the 2017 offseason. The Bengals use the position regularly, but not nearly enough to require specific depth at it. Carter and Hewitt both stayed on for one season, but it’s unlikely that remains the case indefinitely.
As is, Carter saw roughly half of the offensive snaps (49) that Hewitt (106) did. Special teams – where both players were far more active – was a different story. Hewitt was in on 208 special teams snaps, or 46.1 percent of the Bengals’ total. Carter was in on 284 snaps, or 63.0 percent of the same total.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Carter earn the lone H-Back on the Bengals’ 53-man roster next season. That said, he was only targeted once as a receiver all season – and didn’t record the catch. Still, for a rookie free agent, he hasn’t been a bad return on investment.
Brian Hill (Halfback, Wyoming – 5th Round, 156th overall by Atlanta)
- Games Played: 6
- Carries: 11
- Rushing Yards: 37
- Receptions: 2
- Receiving Yards: 36
Hill joined the Bengals in Week 11, after spending the first four weeks of the season as a non-factor with the Falcons. He was active in six of seven games, where he mostly camped on the sideline while Mixon and Gio Bernard saw the field. At least as far as offense was concerned – his 111 special teams snaps on the year led the Bengals’ backfield unit by a wide margin.
Looking ahead, Hill has as good a shot as anyone to be the Bengals’ third halfback in 2018. He has youth over Cedric Peerman, recent availability over Tra Carson, and is clearly favored over Jarveon Williams. He may not have Peerman’s longevity on the roster, but he could stick for a couple years at least.
It’s not as though the Falcons letting him drop to the practice squad is a particularly meaningful red flag. They have two leads in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and clearly like Terron Ward as a reserve. Hill was an extra for them, and their loss was Cincinnati’s gain.
Kent Perkins (Offensive Tackle, Texas – UDFA)
Perkins played six snaps with the Bengals over 2017. While obviously not a big body of work, his 51.5 grade from Pro Football Focus still reflects poorly on him.
It’s not that greatness is expected from free agent offensive linemen. It’s just that, with Perkins turning 24 in November next season, it’s hard to expect anything from him. The Bengals didn’t have a particularly impressive pool of tackles blocking his path to the field. He might stick on the practice squad for a season as a swing lineman, but to what end?
Any development from Perkins would be a welcome surprise, but a surprise regardless. For now, he seems like an interchangeable warm body.
Jarveon Williams (Halfback, UTSA – UDFA)
Williams spent nearly the entire season on the Bengals’ practice squad, being active only in Week 15. He recorded three total snaps: one on offense, two on special teams.
His preseason performance didn’t suggest there was anything more to him than that kind of contribution. Crazier things have happened in the NFL, but it’s highly unlikely Williams sees the 53-man roster in 2018. Him losing his practice squad spot to another back would be less surprising.