A.J. Green must be looking around the Cincinnati Bengals locker room right about now and throwing his hands in the air.
At the same time, quarterback Andy Dalton is sprinting over to his star wide receiver carrying oversized mittens. A.J., buddy, you need to protect those things.
Green’s two hands are precious cargo around Cincinnati. Lose them, lose the world.
The Bengals’ star connection is about the only thing keeping the Cincinnati air attack from completely losing a wing, after an offseason in which Dalton’s two other prime targets were poached.
It’s not that losing Marvin Jones Jr. and Mohamed Sanu to the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons, respectively, deals any major blow. Jones and Sanu aren’t exactly the most dangerous twosome in the league. Jones, after all, caught just 65 of his 103 targets a year ago for 816 yards and 4 touchdowns, and Sanu managed 33 catches and 394 yards. Both are settled into No. 2 roles in their new offenses with quarterbacks named Matt: Stafford, in the case of Jones, who will team up with Golden Tate, and Ryan with the Falcons, who’ll probably still look Julio Jones’ way roughly, oh, 300 times this year.
But Cincinnati responded to the gaping wound with a tiny Bandaid, and now the Bengals enter the season with perennially underwhelming Brandon LaFell as Dalton’s No. 2 receiver, and with an untested second-year player in James Wright and an unproven rookie in Tyler Boyd as backups. Wright had all of 5 catches for 91 yards last year and Boyd fell back to 873 yards on 85 catches (a 10.3 yard-per-reception average) after back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons in college for the Pittsburgh Panthers.
To add injury to insult, valued tight end Tyler Eifert is still out with a bum ankle that he hurt in the Pro Bowl, and his backup, Tyler Kroft, missed the preseason with a knee injury. Running back Giovani Bernard is a reliable receiving threat out of the backfield, but his costar, Jeremy Hill, is most certainly not.
Luckily for Cincinnati, their lone star shines brightly, and in their sixth year as a duo, the Dalton-to-Green connection remains a key one.
“We’ve been playing together for a long time,” Dalton told ESPN’s Coley Harvey. “We feel comfortable. I know where he’s going to be. I know what to expect from him.”
But Green isn’t the only lone star for his team when it comes to starting wide receivers. Here is a look at four other wideouts who do the heavy lifting.
Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Jones hauled in an astounding 136 of Atlanta’s 410 pass completions a year ago, finishing with an even more shocking 43 percent of the Falcons’ passing yards (1,871 of 4,379). Those are Madden 2016-like numbers.
Some people are speculating that Sanu will cut into Jones’ usage, but how could Ryan not look Jones’ way?
Sanu has never managed more than 790 yards in a season, and his career numbers in five NFL seasons are lesser than Jones’ performance last year alone.
Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Evans caught 74 passes for 1,206 yards in 15 games last season, though his touchdowns dipped from an impressive 12 as a rookie to 3 last season. That yardage figure accounted for 31 percent of the Bucs’ passing yards last season. ,Evans should rebound in the red zone this season, particularly as quarterback Jameis Winston continues his maturation. The Buccaneers’ second-biggest receiving threat is running back Charles Sims, as No. 2 wideout Vincent Jackson’s production has declined each of the past four years and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins has not panned out.
Jeremy Maclin, Kansas City Chiefs
People raved about quarterback Alex Smith’s rejuvenation last season, but the Chiefs still managed just 3,255 passing yards last year, 30th in the NFL. A full 1,088 of those yards went to Maclin, though, along with 87 receptions and 8 touchdowns. The Chiefs’ No. 2 wideout last year was Albert Wilson, who managed just 451 yards on 35 grabs, but they moved 2015 3rd-round pick Chris Conley ahead of Wilson on the depth chart during the offseason.
Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills
Like the Chiefs, the Bills’ passing game is less than pedestrian, finishing fifth-worst in the NFL with 3,343 passing yards a year ago. But quarterback Tyrod Taylor and Watkins built up a little rapport that could blossom into a full-blown love connection this season, particularly as the Bills have few other threats through the air. No. 2 wideout Robert Woods has not lived upped to the lofty expectations he set at USC and has never had more than 65 grabs or 700 yards. While tight end Charles Clay is valuable, he doesn’t put up gaudy stats.