2021 Report Card: Cincinnati Bengals Wide Receiver Grades

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There was a reason Joe Burrow shattered the Cincinnati Bengals single-game and single-season passing records: he has elite weapons. Continuing to look back at the best Bengals team in franchise history, it’s time to move on to the Bengals wide receiver grades.

It’s difficult in the NFL to find three receivers with at least 800 yards and nearly 100 targets each. Of all of the units for the Bengals, this wide receiver room has to be the best.

Cincinnati Bengals Wide Receiver Grades for the 2021 Season

Ja’Marr Chase: A+

Regular season: 81 receptions, 1,455 yards, 13 touchdowns
Playoffs: 25 receptions, 368 yards, one touchdown

By a landslide, Ja’Marr Chase was the 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year. After an entire off-season of “should have drafted Penei Sewell,” or, “Chase is a drop machine,” Chase finished his first season in the NFL as one of the top receivers. He was the right choice at 1.05.

The rookie finished with the NFL single-season record for receiving yards by a rookie. His 1,455 regular-season yards also set the Bengals single-season receiving mark, breaking Chad Johnson’s 2007 mark of 1,440 yards. The difference between the two players? Chase led his team to an AFC North title, AFC title, and Super Bowl appearance.

Chase exploded onto the scene in Week 1 with 101 yards and a touchdown off of five catches. His 50-yard score with just 35 seconds left at the end of the first half was the most notable. To start the year, it seemed like Chase was due for a massive touchdown as the second quarter was winding down. In Week 3, it was a 34-yard touchdown with 0:37 to go and in Week 5, he scored a 70-yard touchdown with 0:36 remaining. Of his 14 touchdowns, eight were 32 or more yards.

In just his first year, Chase has shown that he’s an elite talent. Including his two in playoffs, Chase surpassed 100 yards seven times. Two of those were 200+ games. Chase is a big-play machine and you’re willing to overlook his 11 drops. Granted, one of those drops was monumentally bad and turned a sure touchdown in an interception. Chase’s chemistry with Burrow is so locked-in that opponents are hoping Cincinnati doesn’t address the offensive line in the off-season. Burrow and these receivers were this good despite 70+ sacks. Imagine if they can reduce that by even 25%

Tee Higgins: A

Regular season: 71 receptions, 1,091 yards, six touchdowns
Playoffs: 18 receptions, 302 yards, two touchdowns

There might not be another receiver who benefited from — and subsequently burnt defenses — an over-compensation to cover a star receiver than Tee Higgins. Higgins was superb in 2020 as a rookie and only took another step forward in his development in 2021. In only 14 games, Higgins surpassed 1,000 yards for the first time in his career.

Higgins got off to a hot start, catching 10 passes for 118 yards and two scores. After missing a pair of games, it took Higgins a few weeks to get back to it. Once defenses started to respect Chase, Higgins was able to eat. In Weeks 11-13, Higgins went off for 20 receptions, 362 yards, and two touchdowns. Then, in Week 15, he torched division rival Baltimore for 194 yards and two touchdowns.

Higgins is another big-play threat. 20 of his 71 receptions went for at least 20 yards. In the loss to San Francisco, Higgins had four such plays.

The nation got to see just what Higgins means to this offense in both the AFC Championship and in Super Bowl LVI. He went off for 106 yards off of six receptions against Kansas City and finished off the year with 100 yards and two touchdowns off of four catches. Even without the missed offensive pass interference, Higgins was en route to a great game.

Going into 2022, there has been speculation that Higgins may switch to jersey number five, harkening back to his days at Clemson. He also said that he doesn’t want to be OchoCinco 2.0 and, instead, wants to cement his own legacy.

Tyler Boyd: B+

Regular season: 67 receptions,  828 yards, five touchdowns
Playoffs: 15 receptions, 110 yards, one touchdown

The seasoned veteran of this group, Tyler Boyd has been through it all. He came into Cincinnati in 2016, just a year after they made the playoffs last. He turned into the more reliable option as A.J. Green’s career deteriorated. And now that he’s considered WR3 on this team, he continues to lead and make big plays.

Boyd is a fantastic third option for this offense and has some of the surest hands this franchise has seen. That’s why his third-down drop in Super Bowl LVI was so monumental: his last drop before that was Week 17 of the 2020 season. Of Boyd’s 67 receptions, 37 went for first down. Of those, 16 were on third down, which often prompted the @Bengals Twitter account to tweet “THIRD AND BOYD,”  or “BIG LEVELS.”

2021 was the first time in the last four years that Boyd had fewer than 100 targets in the regular season. If not for resting in Week 18, he likely would have surpassed that mark. That’s not too shabby considering the other two weapons in this wide receiver room. There were a few instances where Boyd reminded the NFL that he was still there, most notably in their Week 4 win over Jacksonville. He turned a season-high 11 targets into a season-high nine catches and 118 yards.

Heading into year seven, Boyd is set to have another solid year to make sure defenses don’t focus too much on Chase and Higgins.

Mike Thomas, Trent Taylor, Auden Tate, Trenton Irwin, Stanley Morgan, Jr.: C

Regular season: 14 receptions, 117 yards, one touchdown (Tate)
Playoffs: One reception, 17 yards (all Thomas)

The rest of the receiver room can be grouped into one because compared to the other three, these five could not manage much. Heading into the year, it seemed like Auden Tate was going to take an exciting step forward and turn into a legitimate WR4 for this offense. His year was cut short after suffering an injury in Week 7, just a week after scoring his lone touchdown in garbage time. Unfortunately for him, he might have played his last down as a Bengal.

Stanley Morgan, Jr. very rarely saw playing time as a receiver. His role on his team is and has been special teams. To his credit, he has served his role well enough. The same could be said for Trenton Irwin who played sparingly. Mike Thomas was the one used most as the fourth receiver after Tate’s injury. Also predominantly on special teams, Thomas had cleaned up his penalties. In 2020, he was the catalyst for a benches-clearing fight against Miami. In 2021, he only committed one foul and it was early on in the year.

Of these five, only Trent Taylor is still under contract and not slated to hit free agency. Taylor came on late as a returner, most notably in the Super Bowl. Barring the Bengals drafting a returner, Taylor looks to be the guy in 2022, possibly with Chris Evans.

Overall, this is not a deep group, which is why they scored lowest for the Bengals wide receiver grades. Each has had their flashes and each has shown something in the pre-season. Cincinnati will need to look to upgrade their depth behind the trio of Chase, Higgins, and Boyd. If any one of those three were to go down for an extended period of time, it could handicap a potentially special offense.

This Trio Could be the Best in the NFL

Between the top three Bengals wide receiver grades, Cincinnati is in good hands. This trio will be together for at least two more years. Every play has the chance to go the distance and no lead is safe so long as Burrow is throwing to Chase, Higgins, and Boyd. In far too many instances, it looked like the Bengals were dead in the water or one of these receivers was about to be tackled only for them to break off for a massive touchdown.

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