The Cincinnati Bengals have an understated, but difficult decision to make this offseason. After drafting AJ Green two seasons ago, the team set themselves up with a number one receiving option for the long-term, however because they traded Chad Johnson during the same offseason, the Bengals have never had a reliable starter to consistently contribute across from their young superstar. Instead of searching for one in free agency or adding one early on in the 2012 NFL draft, the Bengals brought in younger players and looked to develop them. That is not a bad way to go about creating a deep receiving corps, but there comes a point when the coaching staff needs to determine if someone from within the franchise will step up, or if they need to look outside for a second starter.
In last season’s sole playoff appearance against the Houston Texans, the defense focused all of their efforts on containing Green. That ultimately shut down the Bengals’ ability to move the ball through the air as Andy Dalton is not good enough to elevate the team’s other receivers against the best of opposition. Even though he only had three receptions for 34 yards in that game, Marvin Jones had shown plenty of promise during the 2012 season. Jones overcame early injury issues to eventually become the starter across from Green, once Mohamed Sanu went out with an injury of his own.
Sanu is a slot receiver at most, that is his niche, but the Bengals need to assess whether Jones can be a worthy starter across from Green for the long-term. Like Sanu, Jones was a rookie this past season after being taken in the fifth round of the draft. Although he showed plenty of promise this year, he didn’t make a major impact, finishing the year with 18 receptions, 201 yards and one touchdown. He also carried the ball three times for 47 yards on end-arounds. Jones is just 22 and should continue to develop because he has all the physical tools, but that level of production isn’t enough for the Bengals to be a competitive playoff offense next season.
That could lead the team to bringing in an outside free agent. It may seem simple to bring in that receiver and let the best player start, but as developing young player, adding a free agent starter could actually stunt the growth of Jones and Sanu. Not only would the youngsters lose vital repetitions in offseason workouts, training camp, season practices and regular season games, it would also be a blow to their confidence. Signing a receiver to start ahead of them says that the coaching staff doesn’t trust them to perform. It can never be predicted how a player will respond to that development at such an early stage in his career.
Furthermore, there isn’t really a standout candidate who would fit the Bengals’ offense in the current prospective pool of free agent wide receivers. Wes Welker and Danny Amendola headline the class, but both will likely be franchise tagged and don’t fit what the Bengals need(Sanu can play their roles). Dwayne Bowe is a perfect fit, but will be too expensive. Brian Hartline likely falls in the same category, while Domenik Hixon, Brandon Stokley, Brandon Gibson and Randy Moss are not much better than the receivers the Bengals already have, if at all. The one player who does make perfect sense is the Green Bay Packers‘ Greg Jennings.
Jennings has a reputation that makes him one of the most respected veterans in the whole league. None of the Bengals’ receivers, outside of Green, could legitimately complain about losing snaps to him. He would immediately improve the Bengals’ passing attack and would offer the team the versatility to keep making use of Jones and Sanu in their preferred roles, because he has the ability to play inside or outside. As such an intelligent and committed player, he likely wouldn’t take as many snaps away from the youngsters at his position as other potential candidates, while he could make up for losses in practice with his ability to teach. Players always prefer to learn from players or ex-players rather than coaches, because they know they have gone through what they are attempting to. Jennings played a role in helping develop James Jones, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb in Green Bay, to the point that they are the reason he won’t be re-signed with the Packers.