In their first losing season since 2010, the Cincinnati Bengals found success in a free-agent wide receiver who wasn’t expected to produce.
2016 has not gone how the Cincinnati Bengals would have liked. Heading into their sixth regular-season finale against Baltimore in the last seven years, Cincinnati is at risk of losing double-digit games for just the third time in the Marvin Lewis era.
But who has been the team’s bright spot? In a year where they’ve gone 1-6-1 in games decided by one possession, it could be difficult to find an MVP.
In 2015, it had to be Andy Dalton. Coming off his worst statistical year in ’14, he was in the MVP talk. Especially after the Bengals rallied off eight straight wins to begin the campaign.
The year before, it was Jeremy Hill. With a plethora of offensive injuries, the rookie running back tallied five 100-yard games as the Bengals went 7-3 down the stretch to make the playoffs.
In 2016, it’s first-year Bengal Brandon LaFell.
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In his final season of a two-year stint with New England, LaFell only played in 11 games. He didn’t reach the end zone for the first time in his career and had the lowest amount of yards (515) since his rookie year with Carolina in 2010.
When he signed with Cincinnati on March 30th, his biggest knock was actually catching the football. In his first game with the Patriots last season after being activated off the PUP list, he dropped six passes in a 30-23 win over the Jets.
The Patriots cut ties with LaFell on March 2nd. But he was only on the market for four weeks before the Bengals scooped him up. After losing Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones to free agency, Cincinnati turned to LaFell with hopes he could compliment A.J. Green as a number 2 wide out.
After hauling in four receptions for 91 yards in his debut against the Jets in week 1, LaFell has earned the one-year, $2.5-million dollar contract he signed.
LaFell turned 30-years-old in November but has stayed healthy all season. In 15 games, he leads the Bengals with six touchdowns and his 795 yards is the second-highest total of his career. The “butterfinger” status he brought to the Queen City has disappeared, too. On 96 targets, he’s dropped just one pass.
His 86-yarder against Houston is the second-longest reception in the AFC this season. His 13.9 yards per catch is 16th in the conference, but only five of the 15 receivers (T.Y. Hilton, Tyrell Williams, Green, Mike Wallace, Amari Cooper) have more receptions.
Of the Bengals’ six offensive free agents in 2017, LaFell should be a top priority.
Along with Tyler Boyd, LaFell has built a connection with Dalton and meshed well in his first season along the Ohio River.
A 2017 receiving corps of Green, Boyd, LaFell, and Eifert would be strong enough for Cincinnati to revert back to a playoff-caliber unit.