The Cincinnati Bengals are in a fascinating position at wide receiver going into 2020. It seems likely that veteran A.J. Green and rookie second-rounder Tee Higgins will occupy the first two spots on the depth chart. However, the competition for the third spot is significantly more open, with four players competing for that position: Tyler Boyd, Auden Tate, Alex Erickson, and John Ross. As such, I think it is worth looking back at those player’s performances from last season to see how they stack up against each other.
Examining the statistical contributions of each relevant Bengals wide receiver in 2019, and how that applies to 2020
All four of the aforementioned wide receivers contributed to Cincinnati’s 2019 offense to varying degrees. The chart below lists the number of games each of them played and the yards and touchdowns they accrued during that time.
|Games Played||Receiving Yards||Receiving Touchdowns|
On the surface, Boyd was easily the most statistically successful of the four players. However, with both Tate and Ross suffering injuries that limited their playing time, it is difficult to compare the four of them directly. Perhaps Ross was actually the team’s best performing player, but injuries prevented him from accruing the statistics that he should have. Fortunately, PFN’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM), was designed to determine a player’s value to their team regardless of how much playing time they had.
So, let’s look at another chart ranking the four wide receivers, but this time sorting them by their overall OSM grades from 2019.
|OSM Grade||WR Rank|
Explaining the OSM rankings
As you can see, the order looks very different. Boyd is still on top, but not by nearly as much. Beyond that, the first thing you will likely notice is that Tate was the worst performer of the group, and by a wide margin. In fact, his grade was the second-lowest overall OSM grade produced by any wide receiver last season. The primary reason for that low grade was Tate’s abysmal catch percentage. In 2019, he caught just 50% of his targets, tied for the fourth-lowest percentage last season.
Interestingly, the player he was tied with was his teammate, Ross. And yet, Ross’ OSM grade was far higher, in large part because of his success on the occasions that he actually did catch the ball. Across 2019, he averaged 7.4 yards after the catch (YAC), 2.6 yards higher than expected according to the NFL’s advanced metrics. Tate’s average was significantly lower, at 4.0 YAC, just 0.7 yards higher than expected. So, while the pair caught the ball at the same rate, Ross was far more successful after completing the catch than his teammate.
Speaking of Ross, he, Boyd, and Erickson all had incredibly close grades, so close that even a slight change could alter the ranking, indicating that they provided almost identical levels of value to the Bengals. You will also note, however, that those levels were relatively low, and explaining why isn’t particularly difficult.
I’ve already mentioned Ross’ struggles to catch the ball consistently. Erickson had a similar problem, catching just 55.13% of his targets. That’s significantly better than Ross, but still far from ideal. And he was much worse after the catch than Ross, averaging 5.6 YAC, just 1.3 yards higher than expected.
Boyd, meanwhile, had the highest catch percentage of the three at 60.81%, but also had the least success after the catch, averaging 4.2 YAC, 0.4 yards lower than expected. The three player’s statistics essentially appear on a sort of gradient. Ross had the highest potential for playmaking between them, but he was also the least consistent.
Meanwhile, Boyd was the most reliable, but the least spectacular, and Erickson fell somewhere in the middle of the two. Overall, each of them was held back by certain statistics, preventing them from being anything better than average wide receivers, which is not a great sign for their 2020 prospects.
Taking a deeper look at each player’s 2019 season
While the overall OSM grades of each of these wide receivers provide a great deal of information, taking a more fine-grained look is helpful in further illustrating the differences between them. Below are a series of charts showing their OSM grades from every week of last season. The black dots represent those grades, while the yellow line represents the league average OSM grade for wide receivers in 2019.
For the most part, the weekly performances confirm what the overall grades already told us. Let’s examine each of them in turn. Tate started the season fine but regressed as the season went on, rarely posting grades above the league average. It should be relatively easy to see why he performed so poorly. On the other hand, Ross is the most difficult to analyze because he so rarely qualified for the OSM (either due to injury or to a lack of targets). That said, as with his overall grade, Ross wasn’t particularly consistent even when he was available.
Erickson’s chart is perhaps the most interesting; he had a strong start, but was significantly more inconsistent after the bye week, although he did trend upward as the season progressed. And finally, Boyd was by far the most consistent of the four wide receivers, hovering around the league average for most of the season.
Boyd and Ross’ 2018 grades tell an interesting story
There’s one more point of data that I think bears mentioning before we come to any conclusions. Erickson and Tate didn’t qualify for an overall OSM grade in seasons prior to 2019, but Boyd and Ross did, and we can learn some interesting things about their career trajectories by looking further back into their OSM histories. For Boyd, his 2019 grade represented a severe decline in value from the year prior, dropping about five points from a 36.41 in 2018.
Meanwhile, Ross is trending in the opposite direction; his 2018 grade was 21.01, meaning that he improved by more than nine points last season. If his improvement continues at the same rate in 2020, he will receive a grade of 40.55, which would have been the highest overall OSM grade in 2019 by a wide receiver. Naturally, that extrapolation relies on numerous factors going right, but if Ross can improve by even half that much, he will easily surpass Boyd in terms of value to the team.
Which Bengals wide receiver ultimately wins the third-string role in 2020 will depend on numerous factors
Based solely on his play last season, Boyd is the clear front-runner for the third-string role. While his OSM grade was low relative to other wide receivers in the NFL, it was the highest of the four players currently being examined, if only by a slight margin. He also produced statistically more than his teammates, although there were mitigating factors involved. However, if Ross can stay healthy and once again improves between seasons, he might surpass Boyd and take the spot.
There is, of course, one major factor in the competition that I haven’t mentioned yet: rookie quarterback Joe Burrow. In large part, the winner of the third-string role will be heavily influenced by his comfort level with each receiver. Burrow is the new star in Cincinnati, so what he wants will play a critical role in determining who gets the most playing time.
As such, even if Boyd (for example) is playing at the highest level, if Burrow prefers passing to a different receiver then they might end up playing more often. We’ll see which Bengals wide receiver is able to distinguish themselves from the pack, both statistically and in the eyes of their new quarterback, and win the third-string role in 2020.
Lucas Ellinas is a writer for Pro Football Network. You can follow him on Twitter @Lucas_Ellinas.