2017 Bengals positional review: Wide Receivers

(Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images) /

The Cincinnati Bengals offense took a big step backward in 2017 and the wide receivers group were a big part of that decline.

Every aspect of the Cincinnati Bengals offense took a nosedive in 2017 as the team ranked 32nd in total yards. The passing game ranked 27th only averaging a putrid 195.1 yards per game. They also ranked just 26th in points per game averaging 18.1. If the Bengals are going to reach the playoffs in 2018 they are going to have to improve on offense significantly which includes at the wide receiver position.

Outside of wide receiver A.J. Green, the Bengals have failed to find a weapon to explode in this offense. The team addressed the wide receiver position heavily in the draft last season taking Washington wide receiver John Ross at number nine overall and Tennessee wide receiver Josh Malone in the fourth round. Unfortunately, neither receiver had a chance to really prove themselves in 2017.

Ross already had a shoulder injury that he was rehabbing when drafted by the Bengals and sustained an injury to his other shoulder during the season. His disappointing rookie season resulted in only 17 snaps with the offense not catching a single catch and running the ball once in which he fumbled. Malone looked like a promising prospect during training camp and the preseason as he hauled in 6 catches for 69 yards and a touchdown. He was barely used in the Bengals offense come regular season only grabbing 6 more catches for 63 yards and a touchdown.

After signing a two-year extension last offseason, wide receiver Brandon LaFell had a down year as well only capturing 52 catches for 548 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2017. Without the presence of tight end Tyler Eifert, the offense failed to find another weapon to draw attention away from Green.

What changed from 2016

Part of the decline in the offense was lack of a deep passing game for the Bengals offense. Teams were able to bring more pressure and stack the box in result to the poor downfield passing attack of Cincinnati. In 2017, quarterback Andy Dalton only completed 13 passes of 56 attempts of passes 20 yards or more. Some of that can be put on the dreadful offensive line play after letting Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler go this last offseason.

Dalton still had close to the same amount of attempts, however as 2016. In 2016, Dalton completed 28 of 61 deep passes for more than 500 more yards of deep passing than 2017. Offensive line play will take some of the blame but so do the quarterback and wide receivers. Everyone will have to step up in 2018 to improve the deep passing game including the wide receivers and some of that has to do with playcalling as well.

Offensive coordinator Ken Zampese was let go after the week 2 loss and quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor stepped up to take the role. The offense was very predictable and vanilla as Lazor never had a chance to build his own playbook and scheme and just adjusted the one already in place left over from Zampese. We will get to see this season what Lazor will bring to this offense and his ability to design plays that fit each players strengths.

Another piece of the offense that hurt the wide receivers was the lack of a run game. The Bengals offense ranked 31st in total rushing yards and 29th in rushing attempts last year. With absolutely zero threat of a run game, the passing game severely struggled and defenses knew what was coming.

How can they improve in 2018

The running game will have to be more consistent and aggressive for the passing game to succeed. With the hopes of the Bengals addressing heavily in the offensive line during the early part of the draft, second-year running back Joe Mixon should be able to get some more traction. He will also likely be played in a role that better suits him instead of being played behind a fullback that suited Jeremy Hill.

Lazor is going to have to be aggressive in his playcalling and designs as well. Since Hue Jackson and Jay Gruden left, the offense has lacked a good play-caller to lead this offense and keep is aggressive. The last two seasons the offense has completely fallen off after being very dominant in 2015. With better playcalling and designs this offense could get back to form.

Cincinnati will have to figure something out across from Green to be a playmaker. LaFell has been nothing but an average receiver that needs the likes of Green and Eifert on the field to have any real success. Ross is coming back with something to prove and has been working hard this offseason to get ready to do so. He’s worked out with other wide receivers around the league including JuJu Smith-Schuster and most recently former Bengals star T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

If Ross can become the player they drafted him to be, this offense can be extremely explosive in 2018. Working on his footwork with Houshmandzadeh could really take his game to the next level and pairing that with his elite speed, he could become an elite deep threat as soon as 2018.

With the help of returning tight end Tyler Eifert as well, we could see a three-headed passing attack alongside Mixon coming out of the backfield. Cincinnati has plenty of young talent that is unproven as well. Both Tyler Boyd and Josh Malone have had very limited snaps but both have shown some promise.

Malone had a roller coaster of a season last year being benched twice and out for a month due to injury but he could still have a chance at the third receiver in 2018 come training camp where he shined a year ago. Head coach Marvin Lewis has always limited his rookies so this could be his chance going into his second year to get that opportunity and show what he is worth. Boyd is another young receiver that has had some flashes and given the opportunity could shine as well.

Draft prospects the Bengals could consider

There are plenty of other needs for the Cincinnati Bengals leading up to the draft that makes it hard to believe they are going to spend much time on wide receiver. Especially in a weak receivers class, but they could surprise us considering they have eleven picks in the upcoming drafts and not eleven spots to fill. Most likely, if the Bengals do look to draft a receiver, it will be in the later rounds.

One prospect that would make sense is Boise State wide receiver, Cedric Wilson. The 6’2″, 197 pounder hauled in 2,640 yards and 18 touchdowns over the last two seasons. He finished off the season with more than 600 yards in his final four games and had an excellent showing at the Senior Bowl. Averaging more than 20 yards per reception over the last two seasons with the Broncos, the young wideout creates seperation with smooth route running which is underrated these days.

Next: 2017 Bengals positional review: running backs

Since he likely won’t get much playing time in 2018, he could use that time to further develop after only spending four seasons as a wide receiver. The former high school quarterback could still be a nice rotational slot receiver in 2018 challenging every part of the defense with his size. He also showed some promise when tracking the deep ball which is what the Bengals are in desperate need of this year.