- After cutting Brandon LaFell, Cincinnati now has a number of young receivers fighting for the No. 2 spot behind A.J. Green, including 2017 first-round pick John Ross.
WHO: Cincinnati Bengals
WHERE: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 3 – Saturday, Aug. 4
HOW: Drove the rental car from Cleveland with a one-night layover in Columbus
This play should have been the highlight of a day that had hardly any for the Cincinnati Bengals offense. The first-team offense had failed to score a touchdown against a mostly-second-team defense in the first half of the scrimmage, and now the units were mixing with Matt Barkley at quarterback and John Ross at receiver.
Barkley, Andy Dalton’s primary backup since A.J. McCarron left in free agency, saw the speedy Ross sprinting past cornerback Josh Shaw toward the end zone. The QB lofted a perfect ball to the former first-round pick that went right through the receiver’s hands and onto the grass in the end zone.
It would be easy to cherrypick this single play and pick at the Bengals, but Ross’s performance this training camp, by many accounts, has been promising, and Cincinnati likes their youth at the position behind top receiver A.J. Green. After a rookie season with zero catches, Ross remains upbeat about what this season has to offer.
“I don’t have a goal. I don’t want to sit here and say that I want 2,000 yards receiving or 100 touchdowns,” Ross says. “I just want to contribute in the best way possible. I want to be an x-factor. I want to be someone who, when they need a spark, they can look at me and say ‘Let’s go.’ Throw me the ball and let me spark us up.”
I’ll have more on Ross and the 2018 Bengals in the coming weeks, but for now, let’s focus on the receiving group that’s trying to figure itself out.
On Thursday, the Bengals surprisingly cut veteran receiver Brandon LaFell. LaFell’s agent said they had been working to secure his release “for some time,” but a team source told ESPN the decision was based on getting younger players more reps. Head coach Marvin Lewis said the week before the transaction that LaFell was “feeling the heat” of the players behind him. Still, the 31-year-old LaFell, who was one of the leaders in the Cincinnati locker room, had 1,410 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in his two seasons with the Bengals.
“It’s tough to see someone like that goes because he was the big brother,” Ross says. “He was the oldest guy in the room and made sure people were straight at all times. He was my mentor. So whenever I needed something, he helped me do better at my position. I think that was the toughest thing for me—not seeing him go as a player but seeing him go as a brother.
“If I learned anything from him it was to always handle your business and things are going to happen.”
There’s not a clear No. 2 receiver in Cincinnati as it stands today. Obviously, when healthy, Tyler Eifert is Andy Dalton’s No. 2 target behind Green, and Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard will be heavily relied upon as pass-catchers out of the backfield like last season. Tyler Boyd, the former second rounder from Pittsburgh in 2016, has had the best camp of all the receivers after Green. His role should expand in 2018 after his receptions were cut in half from his rookie season. Josh Malone, Cody Core and Auden Tate are all fighting for more first-team reps in camp, too. (Kermit Whitfield had the play of the day late in the scrimmage when he brought in a 59-yarder from Jeff Driskel in triple coverage, by the way.)
LaFell’s first job was to be the No. 2 receiver for two years. His second job for the Bengals was to help be a bridge to the younger receivers Cincinnati has been accumulating since 2016. LaFell is gone, the youth is here and it’s all up to them now.
OH, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT: At Friday’s practice outside of the stadium, starting kicker Randy Bullock and backup Jonathan Brown spent a portion of practice working on onside kicks with the special teams. Bullock practiced the kicks with multiple bounces, the kick with one bounce that sends the ball into the air and the 10-yard, straight-ahead dribbler. Kickers rarely get the chance to practice these kicks with 10 other guys, so Bullock welcomed this opportunity.
“For me, personally, I can do it against air,” Bullock says. “It’s nice, too, to do in a team setting where you can kind of get the timing down with everyone, because that’s really important. You know how much speed to put on the ball and height with whatever kick you’re doing. It’s nice for everyone to have that timing with the new kickoff rule.
STORYLINE TO WATCH: When I traveled to Jacksonville two months ago, I asked A.J. Bouye to name who he thinks are the top five cornerbacks in the league. Bouye named William Jackson the fourth-best corner in the league behind himself, Jalen Ramsey and Casey Hayward. Jackson didn’t give up any big plays in the two days I saw him. According to Pro Football Focus, his 34.9% catch rate was the best mark PFF has graded in the past 12 years. He played less than 700 snaps last season after missing his 2016 rookie season with a torn pec, so he’s a guy to watch this preseason and into the start of the season now that he’s solidified as the top corner for these Bengals.
TOP POSITION BATTLE: Cordy Glenn has the left tackle position locked down after the Bengals traded for him before the draft, but the right tackle spot is very much up for grabs. Former Giants guard Bobby Hart got the first-team reps at right tackle during Saturday’s scrimmage while Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi were the second-team left and right tackles, respectively. It’s likely the position will be decided in the four exhibitions, and it will come down to Hart and Fisher.
OFFBEAT OBSERVATION: My previous stop was in Berea, Ohio, where the Browns have a mobile videoboard at practice on which they can replay the previous play if they want. The Bengals held Family Day at Paul Brown Stadium for their black and white scrimmage and didn’t utilize their two videoboards for replay for the players, coaches and fans. Yes, it was just a practice, but it was as close to a game-like atmosphere as Cincinnati will get this preseason outside of exhibitions, and (while I know this is an extremely small quibble) I expected the Bengals to pay a few part-time camera guys and board people to run it for two hours.
PARTING THOUGHTS: The Bengals took center Billy Price with the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft despite Price suffering a partially torn pec at the combine. But his chest wasn’t the issue Saturday—his snapping was. Four of Price’s snaps ended up on the ground, with three coming under center and one in shotgun to Dalton. Each of the three botched snaps under center came with different quarterbacks. Offensive line coach Frank Pollack explained that Price has been working primarily with Dalton, so the feel with other quarterbacks isn’t there yet for the rookie. “It’s a two-man problem, it’s a two-man solution. It’s just as much on Billy as it is on the quarterback who’s working with him,” Pollack said. “It’s a center-quarterback exchange, not a center-by-himself exchange.”
Lewis wasn’t as diplomatic when asked who was at fault. “There’s no question it’s continued to linger, and we had one with each quarterback today,” Lewis said. “Same center and each quarterback, so Billy’s got to understand how important that is.”
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