Much attention has been paid to Cincinnati Bengals second-year quarterback Andy Dalton when it comes to finding a reason why they have lost their last four games. While Dalton has been struggling with accuracy and while throwing under pressure, another problem has been his receiving corps.
In terms of experience—as in, snaps played on an NFL team—Dalton's most veteran target is tight end Jermaine Gresham. In terms of talent and reliability, Dalton's best target is second-year receiver A.J. Green.
And beyond the two, Dalton has few other experienced and consistent playmakers to throw to. Brandon Tate has been in the NFL since 2009, but spent just one season as a receiver, and the rest of Dalton's weapons are in their first or second years on active rosters.
For all the questions raised about Dalton's arm strength, he hasn't had much trouble connecting deep with Green. In total, Dalton's yards per attempt are 7.5, the same as Tom Brady, and Green is averaging 14.4 yards per reception. He has a total of 735 receiving yards, with just 195 coming after the catch, and a long of 73 yards.
Part of what is holding Dalton back is that he has few playmaking options beyond Green, and when Green is caught up in double coverage (as he often is), he has no one else to reliably throw to. Slot receiver Andrew Hawkins is his second-most targeted receiver, with 44 passes thrown his way and 31 receptions for 378 yards, 12.2 yards per receptions, 254 yards after the catch and two scores.
Hawkins was off to a hot start this season, but as defenses realized what a threat he is—he's small but elusive and makes defenders miss—it's been easier for them to stop him by playing him with physicality. He hasn't broken 50 yards in a game since Week 3, which is also the last time he's had a touchdown. Hawkins is too specialized a player to be considered a go-to target despite the high percentage of receptions to targets he has.
Behind Hawkins is Armon Binns, who beat out Tate (as well as rookies Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones) for the clear No. 2 wideout job alongside Green this summer, but who has been trading the job with him now that the season's half over.
For all of Binns' skills, he's a possession receiver at best, and his struggles in blocking have also helped keep him off the field. Of his 298 snaps, he's had just 29 pass targets this year and 18 receptions for 210 yards, 11.7 yards per reception, 5.2 yards after the catch and one touchdown.
What's most interesting about Binns is that, according to Pro Football Focus, of those 29 targets, the 18 he caught were the only catchable passes, giving him a drop rate of zero. But because Binns is a liability in blocking, he can only be on the field if he's the target. Pro Football Focus ranks him their 109th-ranked receiver (out of 110) because of that, his two penalties and the fact that he's not made much out of the opportunities he's been given.
Tate isn't a much better option. Tate's best year as a receiver came in 2010, when he had 24 receptions or 432 yards and three touchdowns, but otherwise, he's been more productive as a returner. That's all he did for the Bengals last season, but with a dearth of experienced players at receiver, he's been given a few extra opportunities as part of their offense.
"Few," however, is the operative word. He's had just 14 passes thrown his way this season, and he's caught just seven of them for 105 yards and a touchdown. He had a season-high six targets in Week 9 against the Denver Broncos but just one 17-yard reception despite playing 66 of their 77 snaps, his highest snap count of the season by far.
Tate served more as a decoy than anything else in Week 9, drawing coverage away from Green and Gresham rather than being someone Dalton could rely on. His six targets were more about him simply being on the field and in an advantageous matchup than a sign the Bengals are interested in making Tate a full-time starter—chances are, that snap count will drop drastically next week.
With these uninspiring options on the field, it's clear that Dalton's personal struggles to avoid a second-year slump aren't being helped much by the vast majority of his receivers. Jones' knee injury, an MCL tear, still has him sidelined, costing the Bengals another potential contributor.
At this point, Cincinnati has little choice but to get Sanu more involved. He's played just 49 snaps this year, and 16 of those have been as a run blocker. The fact that he has a skill set beyond just receiving makes him a useful player to have on the field more often, and he's also pulled down five of the six passes thrown his way (and threw a touchdown pass of his own).
Considering he is the most versatile of the receivers who could be Green's No. 2, the fact he's been active for only two games is baffling and something the Bengals should consider changing now that the season is quickly getting away from them.
Heading into the season, there were many questions circling the Bengals receiving corps, mainly related to their youth and relative inexperience. It turns out that those aren't their biggest liabilities—instead, it's their lack of versatility that keeps any one of them standing out aside from Green.
Dalton needs more complete-package receivers who can stay on the field, down after down, to present viable receiving options. That's how he can build a rapport with his targets and find more success in the passing game. With few receivers who can be trusted with anything beyond passing downs, there's no consistency week to week. And if no receiver other than Green can stay on the field for a majority of snaps, then clearly none can emerge to help Dalton out.