Roster Projections is a series that’ll look to break down and discuss each of the Cincinnati Bengals’ position groups, then project how they’ll look at the end of the 2018 offseason. In this series, we’ll look at players’ 2017 seasons, analyze them as they currently are, and predict how they’ll spend 2018 with the Bengals. The third edition of this series will cover the Bengals’ receivers.
The position group with the most questions surrounding it heading into the Bengals’ 2018 season appears to be wide receiver. At the top, unquestionably, is A.J. Green. Behind him is a potentially deep group, but one defined by youth and consistency questions.
Green is a top-five receiver leaguewide and has unquestionably been the star of the Bengals’ offense through recent years. He’ll continue to be the focal point of the unit in 2018 (regardless of how much Joe Mixon breaks out). His elite size, body control, and route-running ability render him well ahead of most of his peers. Despite those traits, there were several instances last season where he had critical concentration lapses, leading to dropped passes or poor routes. Those lapses stemmed from frustration with the sputtering Bengals’ offense – look for Green to shine as the leader of an improved unit.
Still, another receiver needs to step up across from Green. Brandon LaFell has been the Bengals’ second receiver since arriving from New England in 2016. In Cincinnati, LaFell has been the epitome of serviceable. His age (32 in November), average play, and meager production could lead to him being phased out in 2018.
Two young receivers should be in line to take LaFell’s snaps: Josh Malone and John Ross. Both are second year draft picks by the Bengals with outstanding physical traits. Malone is a bigger, physical receiver with a touch of speed to compliment his size. Ross is the most intriguing player on the team – the fastest prospect in NFL combine history, Ross spent 2017 either sidelined by injuries or hidden in head coach Marvin Lewis’ doghouse. If healthy, Ross will make his presence felt from both outside and in the slot. Look for Malone to excel as a boundary corner after spending 2017 as a reserve player.
Aside from Ross, two other receivers will compete for the Bengals’ starting slot gig: Tyler Boyd and Alex Erickson. Both saw time in 2017, but neither looked particularly impressive. His game-winning touchdown against Baltimore notwithstanding, Boyd looked merely average. Erickson has historically been more of a special teams player, but had to spell Boyd on offense last season. Small and quick, Erickson is built for the slot and outstanding after the catch. Regardless, the depth of the position might relegate Erickson to return duties – where he’s still very impactful.
Other notable players battling for roster spots include Cody Core and 2018 seventh-round pick Auden Tate. Core was pegged by some as a breakout candidate in 2017, but failed to record a single catch. He could be cut in training camp if Tate forces his way onto the roster. Tate brings elite size to the table at 6’5″ and 228 lbs., and plays to it. His stunningly slow 40-yard dash time at the Combine (4.68 seconds) shouldn’t overshadow his upside as a red zone weapon. If the early offseason reviews are any indication, he could be well on his way to filling that role.
One last name worth mentioning is Quinton Flowers, an undrafted rookie out of South Florida. A college quarterback, Flowers is a halfback on the Bengals roster but should see snaps from a variety of positions. If he makes the team, it’ll be as a contributor across the offensive formation – not strictly in the backfield. The dynamic athleticism he brings to the table could land Flowers a roster spot as a receiver if not a back. Keep an eye out for some explosive plays from him in the preseason, from multiple spots.