The wide receivers have been absolutely nuclear during training camp thus far. Because of their success, we need to revisit who the Bengals will keep.
Over a month ago, we did roster projections for each position on this Bengals team. Looking back now, one of the positions we missed on the most was wide receiver. After the news that the team is releasing Brandon LaFell, it’s time to revisit this positional group and take another stab at projecting the final roster.
The biggest change at the receiver position is that the Bengals will likely keep only six receivers instead of seven. Before camp, we had seven wide receivers making the final roster, which seems unlikely. Aside from LaFell, I projected AJ Green, John Ross, Tyler Boyd, Josh Malone, Cody Core, and Auden Tate to make the team. Now that we have seen everyone in camp, though, it’s a good time to reevaluate each receiver’s odds to make the final roster.
AJ Green, of course, is a lock to make the team. He’s looked really solid all throughout camp, and should be a big contributor for the Bengals once again. The other two guarantees for this team, though, are Ross and Boyd. Both Ross and Boyd are high draft picks who have had slow starts to their career, but should have breakout seasons this season.
Ross has blown many people away with his raw speed. He made one of the first splash plays of Bengals camp, just burning Dre Kirkpatrick on a nine route. Ross has been creating separation deep with his quickness, but has flashed the ability to run short and intermediate routes. Boyd has been similarly impressive, making plays all over the field. Boyd will play primarily out of the slot, but has made plays on the outside as well. Most importantly, his chemistry with Dalton has never been stronger.
Outside of those three receivers, no one is a lock to make the final roster. However, I feel pretty secure in betting on Josh Malone to make the team. The Bengals drafted him in the 4th round last year and used him sparingly. However, he showed he can deliver boom plays last year as he did just that against the Steelers.
Malone is currently nursing a hamstring injury, but had a strong start to camp. His combination of speed, size, and length is something no one else has outside of Green, so Malone could be a real field-stretching weapon for the Bengals. I’d put his roster odds at 90%.
The next safest player is probably the most versatile non-starting receiver on this team. Alex Erickson, a third year UDFA, is making a strong case to keep his spot on the roster this camp. The last two seasons, Erickson has been buried on the WR depth chart. For his career, he has only 18 catches for 251 yards and a touchdown.
However, he has made his mark in the return game, where he has started for two years. Erickson isn’t the most dynamic returner, but he is sure-handed and gets chunk gains on a regular basis. Erickson has been operating as the starting returner all throughout camp so far. He has also proved to the Bengals this season that he’s capable of working out of the slot and catching contested balls across the middle. If Erickson can prove himself as both a wide receiver and a returner, he should make the team. I’d put his roster odds at 75% at this point.
The biggest riser in value during camp has to be Auden Tate. One of the Bengals’ seventh round picks this year, the rookie has been absolutely dominant during camp, catching everything thrown his way and using his massive frame to his advantage. His lack of speed and cutting ability will be an issue, but Tate has more than enough physical talent to make up for those flaws. Even I, someone who believed in his ability to make the team, didn’t see this coming from him. The Bengals have to give him serious consideration now not just to make the team, but to make the active roster. Tate’s size and hands give him an innate advantage in the red zone, which could be very valuable, especially if (when) Eifert misses time.
Tate was also seen running with the special teams, which is a big deal for his ability to make the active roster. Unfortunately, he suffered a concussion during camp, so he will miss some time in the near future. If he were healthy, I’d have much more confidence in his chances to make the team. Still, I’d give him 65% odds to make the final roster. If I were the GM, I’d keep Tate with zero hesitation.
The last guy with any chance to make the final roster is Cody Core. Core is entering his third season with the Bengals, but needs to make a big impact before the season just to make this roster. Core finished his 2016 season on a high note – including a game where he got 14 targets – but was completely invisible in 2017. He didn’t even record a catch last season.
At the start of camp, Core was probably the least impressive of all the Bengals wide receivers, too. Recently, though, with the injuries to Malone and Tate, Core has begun to shine a little bit. Core brings a similar skill set to the table as Malone, but he can run some routes out of the slot, too. If the Bengals decided to keep Core, it wouldn’t be shock, but it’s going to be hard for him to outperform these other young stars. I’d put Core’s roster odds at a mathematically accurate 23.3% (or 7/30).
To recap, I’m now projecting the Bengals to keep AJ Green, John Ross, Tyler Boyd, Josh Malone, Auden Tate, and Alex Erickson. Having seen these guys all pop in training camp, I feel really strong about the potential of this group. If the Bengals decide to roll with these six guys, watch for a big jump in playmaking in 2018.