The Cincinnati Bengals have a lethal combination of running backs in Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill. As previously discussed, that duo could determine just how far the Bengals will go in 2015.
In the receiving corps, the Bengals project to finally be at full health. Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones played a combine one game in 2014, and A.J. Green battled injuries throughout the season.
Those players will clearly determine how powerful the offense is, but unheralded players Mario Alford and Rex Burkhead could be the true missing pieces.
According to Arif Hassan of Vikings Journal, the Bengals’ receiving corps ranks No. 22 in the NFL in average 40-yard dash time. That doesn’t always translate to game speed, but the Bengals are essentially a team flush with possession receivers.
Alford and Burkhead could be the players who open the offense up.
Burkhead, 24, was selected with the No. 190 overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft. He didn’t play much in 2013, but did manage to record three receptions for 34 yards and a 23-yard run during the Bengals’ 26-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the 2014 NFL Playoffs.
In limited action, he showed enough to intrigue the coaching staff.
Per Coley Harvey of ESPN, Burkhead routinely lined up in the slot for the Bengals in OTAs.
"Regularly this spring, Burkhead appeared in the slot. He looked impressive, too, running routes and catch passes with safeties and corners lined up against him. Two of the biggest challenges he has had in getting reps as a slot receiver involve learning the more complicated route trees receivers have compared to running backs, and discovering ways to put moves on the quicker safeties and cornerbacks who have covered him. As a running back, he was more regularly covered by linebackers on passes out of the backfield. His moves in those matchups required power. At receiver, they require more finesse."
That could be what the Bengals need.
Burkhead spent his collegiate career at running back for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. He ran for 1,357 yards as a junior and averaged 6.9 yards per carry as a senior while battling a knee injury.
Never during that time did he emerge as much of a pass-catching threat.
Yet, entering the third season of his NFL career, Burkhead appears to be the missing piece in the Bengals’ receiving corps. Burkhead only ran a 4.73 40-yard dash, but his combination of strength, quickness and game speed are much greater than that number would suggest.
And then there’s Alford.
Standing at 5’9″, the 24-year-old was selected in the seventh round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Thus, it stands to reason that he won’t be utilized very often in 2015.
That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be.
Alford ran a a 4.43 40-yard dash at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine. At his Pro Day, Alford chopped that time all the way down to 4.27, per NFL.com.
Sub-4.3 speed is exactly what the Bengals need on offense, and Andy Dalton knows it, per Harvey.
"“When the ball’s in his hands, he can really go,” Dalton said.“He’s still learning, especially with what he was doing in college,” Dalton said. “It was a little different. He was moving all over the place. He’s explosive, you definitely can see that."
For those unfamiliar, Alford worked opposite Top 10 pick Kevin White with the West Virginia Mountaineers.
Admittedly, it will be hard for Alford and Burkhead to see consistent snaps with Green, Jones and Sanu all lining up at wide receiver. Tyler Kroft will complement Eifert at tight end and Bernard will come out of the backfield to create a system with six noteworthy pass-catchers.
Once they get their chance, however, Alford and Burkhead could burst onto the scene and provide a significant impact.
Burkhead can work from the slot and provide a combination of quickness and power that most at the position fail to. That’s exactly why the coaches have been working him out there.
Alford offers a more intriguing option as a kick returner. He averaged 28.6 yards per return for West Virginia, taking two kicks to the house.
That’s what game-breaking speed can do for you.
The value of a slot receiver is as high as its ever been, and vertical speed is right there with it. That’s the type of balance that Alford and Burkhead could provide the Bengals with in an ideal scenario.
Heaven only knows the Bengals could use some explosiveness at wide receiver.
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