Since joining the NFL as in 2011 Dane Sanzenbacher has struggled to find his niche. The reason for this is more about the circumstances he’s been presented rather than any lack of ability or work ethic on Sanzenbacher’s part. Heading into his sophomore season with the Bears, Sanzenbacher fell victim to the teams’ major investment in receivers. The Bears acquired Brandon Marshall as a free agent in hopes of replicating the success he and Jay Cutler enjoyed together in Denver, and drafted Alshon Jeffrey with their second-round pick in 2012. These additions slid Devin Hester, who held a significant roster spot as the team’s primary ST returner, and Earl Bennett into the slot role and pushed Sanzenbacher out of the rotation. Sanzenbacher was cruelly released by the Bears on December 24, 2012, which I’m sure made his holiday enjoyable. But, like the bargain shoppers they are, the Bengals took advantage of this by claiming Sanzenbacher on Christmas day and he has since been buried within the offense like a bargain gift in the back of the closet.
While with the Bengals, Sanzenbacher has again fallen victim to circumstance. He was claimed by the Bengals just prior to their final regular season game in 2012 and was inactive for both this game and their playoff loss to the Texans. The team had already drafted their stud wide receiver in AJ Green and possessed a dominant pass-catching tight end in Jermaine Gresham. Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones were finishing their first year with the team after being drafted in the third and fifth rounds respectively. Then, ahead of Sanzenbacher’s first full year with the team, the Bengals drafted Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard with their first and second rounds picks in 2013. All of these players demand their share of attention in the receiving game and leave little room for Sanzenbacher to earn playing time.
When given the opportunity he has proven his ability to benefit an offense. Sanzenbacher had his most productive year as a rookie producing 27 catches for 276 yards and 3 TDs for the Bears. He displayed his ability to be an excellent slot receiver using his quickness to break into shorter routes and allow the offense to “move the chains” like Wes Welker has done for both the Patriots and Broncos during his career. He has also proven his ability to make big catches during pressurized situations evidenced by his 23-yard, one-handed catch against the Bills last year to convert a 4th and 15. This type of performance during big moments is something the Bengals have lacked in recent years; it’s especially difficult to do this when coming into the game “cold.” With the Bengals new offensive focus of controlling the clock by maintaining possession, Sanzenbacher’s talents would match the scheme well and give the Bengals a sure-handed, big moment receiver.
2014 will be crucial for the third-year receiver. He is in a contract year after signing his restricted free agent (RFA) tender this off-season and 2015 will be the first year that Sanzenbacher enters an off-season as an unrestricted free agent (UFA). Due to his struggle to find his niche, this may be the last opportunity for Sanzenbacher to secure an NFL future and earn regular playing time. A major goal of this off-season should be to prove himself capable of a role on special teams. He’s never made an impact in this way during the regular season, though he did have a nice 71-yard punt return for a TD during last year’s preseason. It would certainly help him stick in the NFL and allow him the necessary time to develop and carve out a prominent role, a la Vincent Rey. This year could present a unique opportunity for Sanzenbacher in the return game as Brandon Tate’s status with the team seems more in question than ever. Whether the Bengals can (or even want to) retain Sanzenbacher past this year remains to be seen. But giving his untapped talent an opportunity to shine may be best for both he and the Bengals.