The Cincinnati Bengals once had the most feared wide receiving corps in the NFL. Chad Ochocinco, TJ Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry were a virtually unstoppable trio who could beat defenders deep, underneath and with their athleticism after the catch. There star was fleeting, however. Henry died, Houshmandzadeh left via free agency and Chad finally got his release last season only to be relegated to the New England Patriots' bench.
This season's receiving corps was a cobbled together group of second stringers and a rookie first round pick. Together with the surprising accuracy and poise of rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, the Bengals passing offense was surprisingly potent given what they had lost. Even so, the Bengals aerial attack still has plenty of room to improve, finishing 20th overall in the NFL.
The receiving corps has a "go to" player in AJ Green. He filled Chad's shoes before anyone could even notice he was gone. Green rewrote the Bengals rookie record book despite missing time with some minor injuries and earned a Pro Bowl berth. He has the potential to be one of, if not the best ever to split wide in Cincinnati.
Inside the Bengals have another star in the making in tight end Jermaine Gresham. His combination of size, speed and athleticism puts him in upper echelon of NFL tight ends. He too earned a Pro Bowl berth. With the emergence of rookie Colin Cochart and assuming the team can re-sign veteran Donald Lee, tight end won't be a position the Bengals consider at all in free agency or the draft.
The receivers around Green are a question mark, however. Andrew Hawkins was signed as a free agent from the CFL and proved to be a valuable third down target in the slot, especially after Jordan Shipley was lost for the season with a knee injury. All signs point to a full recovery for Shipley, but we won't know how effective he can be until camp opens up in August. Ryan Whalen, another rookie, was also impressive in spots.
Likely gone in free agency are Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell. Simpson, despite turning in one of the all-time greatest highlight reel plays against Arizona, simply hasn't been consistent enough in his route running to justify giving him free agent dollars. He also still has the cloud of his drug arrest hanging over him. Though that's not likely to result in jail time for Simpson, the Bengals appear to be heading away from players with that kind of baggage. Caldwell too was inconsistent and also struggled with injuries, missing the tail end of the season with a sports hernia (remember Chris Perry?). That most likely sealed his fate with the Bengals.
That means the Bengals will be looking for at least two receivers via free agency and the draft. Fortunately for Cincinnati, both pools are richly stocked. Ideally, the Bengals would like to use some of their considerable cap space to bring in a veteran threat to go opposite AJ Green and teach him some of the finer points of the trade.
As with any position, some players are unrestricted free agents, but will not be on the market after their teams re-sign them or use the franchise tag on them. Those players would include Wes Welker, Dwayne Bowe and Marques Colston. After them though are still some players who combined with Green, could give Andy Dalton some considerable weaponry through the air next season.
As mentioned above, Marques Colston is likely to be targeted for re-signing by the Saints. After dealing with Colston and quarterback Drew Brees and perhaps G Carl Nick, there probably won't be any money left over for Robert Meachem. The former Tennessee star has been an underappreciated member of the Saints' vaunted passing attack. He has been a deadly deep threat and has consistently averaged over 40 catches per season over the last three seasons. He's dangerous in the red zone as well.
The Giants' Mario Manningham is a possible target as well. He made one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history on the Giants' game-winning drive against New England. With Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz already in the fold, whether or not the Giants will want to pay Manningham more money is uncertain. Like Meachem, he would enjoy a more prominent role in Cincinnati. Still, the Warren, OH native has been a very productive third receiver in the Giants' scheme. He's scored 18 touchdowns in three years of full time activity and is also a very dangerous red zone threat who can beat corners deep as well.
Perhaps the most intriguing target involves the Indianapolis Colts. Peyton Manning's future is uncertain and the Colts are faced with several important internal free agent decisions, including receivers Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon. It's not likely that the Colts would re-sign both Wayne and Garcon, even if Manning were to return, as they also have to address other positions. That means one of these Super Bowl winning receivers should be on the market.
Garcon brings sprinter's speed and tremendous route running. Drops have been somewhat problematic for him, but his numbers have been solid. Even without Manning this season, Garcon enjoyed his most productive season yet in terms of catches and yards.
Wayne would be the ideal veteran compliment to Green, if he is willing to accept being a "number 2" receiver. He still has deceptively good deep speed and is unrivaled in his ability to get open and catch balls in traffic. Wayne struggled a bit this season without Manning, but definitely brings the best pedigree of the group.
We think the Bengals will end up with one of these receivers this off season. Regardless of who it is, they'll bring a Super Bowl ring and some much needed experience to the Bengals receiving corps.
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