This past week, I took a look at Bengals sophomore wideouts Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones’ rookie-year snaps to get a better feel for each receiver’s playing style, and short- and long-term outlooks. It was easy to watch both players closely through the entirety of the season. Sanu and Jones rotated games for the first six weeks. Sanu starred from Weeks 7-12, while Jones nursed a torn MCL. Jones was then thrust into the starting lineup in Week 13, after Sanu broke his foot in practice. They were on the field at the same time for only a handful of snaps.
Sanu was drafted in the third round, and Jones entered the league as a fifth-rounder. Sanu starred as a possession receiver in three seasons at Rutgers, and also dabbled at quarterback and running back. As a senior, Jones played second fiddle to Keenan Allen at California.
After a review of all 572 combined regular-season snaps played by both receivers, I came away a bit more impressed with the former Scarlet Knight. I charted every snap each receiver played. Here were my takeaways:
The Bengals’ 2012 Offense
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden brought a West Coast philosophy to Cincinnati when coach Marvin Lewis hired him away from the UFL's Florida Tuskers in 2011. Jay, the brother of Jon, spent a lot of time coaching in lower-level pro leagues, but did have seven years of experience as an offensive assistant on his brother’s Buccaneers staff (2002-08).
Gruden prefers a balanced attack centered on power runs and short-to-intermediate throws. Andy Dalton finished smack in the middle of the league – 15th – with 528 pass attempts. Although BenJarvus Green-Ellis ended the year with the NFL's eighth-most carries (278), he got a lot of work as a clock-killer. Gruden's style of offense suits Sanu’s skill set better than it does Jones.
Both Sanu and Jones missed significant time due to injuries. Jones’ Week 7 MCL tear kicked the door wide open for Sanu. Prior to Jones' injury, Gruden said the fifth-rounder had been “coming on like gangbusters” in practice and was scheduled to play heavy snaps against the Steelers that week. Sanu took the opportunity and ran with it. After playing just 18 snaps over the first six weeks, Sanu played close to 200 over the next four contests. Then, he encountered bad luck. Sanu’s season ended when he broke a bone in his foot during the Week 13 practice week; the same week Jones returned to full health. Neither player had a history of college injuries.
I charted Sanu with 208 snaps on the season – 70 lined up wide left (33.7 percent), 20 wide right (9.6 percent), 112 in the slot (53.8 percent), five in the backfield as a running back (five carries for 15 yards), and one at quarterback (73-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green in Week 3 versus the Redskins). Sanu goes 6-foot-2, 211, but his 4.6 wheels limit him to a between-the-numbers role in the passing game. When lined up out wide, he typically played “Z” off the line of scrimmage. Sanu’s toughness and “get off” were questioned entering the league, so keeping him away from defensive back jams made sense.
I had Jones down for 364 snaps – 190 wide left (52.2 percent), 104 wide right (28.6 percent), 68 in the slot (18.7 percent), and two in the backfield on kneel downs. The two second-year receivers play different styles. Jones played a lot of “X," along with “Z.” Jones is much more physical than Sanu, and putting him up in the face of cornerbacks doesn’t bother him as much. I’d venture to say that over 90 percent of Jones’ slot snaps came on run plays. Jones is a very willing blocker, and the Bengals often motioned him close to the ball to get him involved in the run game. It got to the point where any time Jones was in the slot, Gruden was clearly going to call a run.
Target and Route Breakdown
I charted Sanu with 25 targets (including penalties) as a rookie. Six targets came on first down, nine on second, nine on third, and one on fourth. Clearly, the Bengals value Sanu’s reliable hands on late down and distance. Sanu reeled in 16 passes – ten moved the chains – for 154 yards and four touchdowns. He was a red-zone maven; seven targets came in the red area and five Dalton passes were directed toward Sanu in the end zone. In college, Sanu caught 210 passes and only four went for 20-plus-yard gains. Most impressive were Sanu’s aforementioned sure hands. He didn’t drop a single ball, miss a single catchable pass, or have any of his targets result in an interception.
On Sanu’s 25 targets, I took note of which route he ran. He ran four slants, three comebacks, three bubble screens, three hooks, two posts, two corners, two outs, two drags, two ins, one back-shoulder fade, and one “go.” A lot of short, high-percentage patterns.
As for Jones, I charted him with 36 targets. 18 came on first down, nine on second, and nine on third. (Much different from Sanu.) For the mathematically-challenged, 75 percent of Jones’ targets came on early downs. That’s when an offense is more likely to take a shot downfield. Jones caught 18 passes – 11 resulted in a new set of downs or a score – for 201 yards and one TD. Only four of Jones’ 36 targets came in the red zone. I credited Jones with one drop; it was blatant and resulted in a Dalton pick. Two of Jones' 18 misconnections were deemed catchable.
On Jones’ 36 targets, he ran eight hooks, seven “go” routes, five comebacks, four posts, three outs, three ins, two crossing patterns, two drag routes, one slant, and one ad-libbed route where he just kept moving on a broken play. Unlike Sanu, Jones’ route tree was deeper downfield and offered more yardage upside.
Where Sanu and Jones Need to Improve
Sanu is a non-factor in the deep passing game. He isn’t going to run many routes further than 7-10 yards downfield. That won't change, so I’m not going to suggest he'll get better in that area. He’s not an explosive athlete. I would like to see Sanu become tougher over the middle. I noticed a few times where he was pushed off of his route with ease. A.J. Green is a tremendous route runner, and hopefully Sanu will learn some things from him this summer. Sanu likes to roll in and out of his breaks.
Jones’ biggest problem is his hands. He dropped a simple third-and-ten crossing pattern in Week 13, and the ball popped directly into the air for an easy interception at San Diego’s 19-yard line. Jones couldn’t reel in a third-and-nine end-zone target in Week 16 against the Steelers. He got a step on Keenan Lewis on a go route to the right side of the end zone, and it hit Jones in the hands as he skied over the top of Lewis. Had Jones caught it, it would have been a 23-yard score. It would also be nice to see Jones use his 4.46 speed more to his advantage. He's more glider than burner. If Jones learns to run routes with increased explosion, he will have more opportunities.
What I Liked
It’s impossible to not like Sanu's big, sticky hands. Sanu had a terrific stretch from Weeks 10-12, catching 11 passes for 98 yards and four touchdowns. The yardage is modest, but that’s who Sanu is. Two catches stand out when looking back at his rookie campaign. One came in Week 10 against Giants CB Prince Amukamara. On a third-and-eight comeback route, Sanu was draped in Amukamara’s coverage but still managed to pluck the ball out of the air with his fingertips. The other impressive grab was his two-yard, one-handed touchdown catch on a corner route over the top of Raiders CB Ron Bartell in Week 12. Sanu skillfully toe-tapped both feet in bounds.
Jones’ willingness to block really impressed me. He wasn’t great at it, but he put in a lot of effort as he attacked linebackers and safeties. That alone could get Jones on the field for meaningful 2013 snaps. I also liked Jones’ ability to play all three receiver positions. Jones didn’t really have a season-defining play as a receiver. His lone end-zone trip came against the Ravens’ backups in Week 17 on a second-and-one curl route where he beat CB Chris Johnson for an 11-yard score.
Sanu has recovered from his broken foot and participated fully in OTAs. He’ll face competition from Jones for the No. 2 job, but Sanu is the early favorite. In a perfect world, he would also win the slot job in three-wide sets. The Bengals drafted Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard, however, and Andrew Hawkins is still on the roster. All three can contribute in the slot. Sanu is being talked up as a sleeper in fantasy circles, but should be nothing more than a late-round flier. While Sanu drew pre-draft comparisons to ex-Bengal T.J. Houshmandzadeh, I think his ceiling is 2011 David Nelson.
I don’t think Jones’ skills mesh with Dalton’s strengths. Dalton struggles throwing deep, and Jones is best suited for a situational intermediate-to-deep threat role. To compare him to a former Bengal, I see Jones as a savvier Jerome Simpson. Both players are athletic and look good in practice. In 2012, Jones averaged just one target for every 10-11 snaps played. That’s not enough to warrant fantasy relevance. Unfortunately for Jones, it’s not going to get better. On the off chance he wins the No. 2 receiver job, he’ll still be playing opposite one of the biggest target monsters in the sport in A.J. Green. Jones isn't even on the re-draft fantasy radar because Sanu is the favorite. Jones is worth stashing in dynasty. If Dalton doesn’t show improvement, the Bengals could move on in 2014. Hypothetically, a big-armed quarterback could be brought in, improving Jones' long-range value.