Ja'Marr Chase, Kyle Pitts could be just what Bengals' offense needs

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CINCINNATI -- Last season, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green had a self-realization that men in their 30s tend to experience. It doesn't take long to realize things aren't like once were.

Before Green missed all of 2019 with an ankle injury, he was the Bengals' top receiver. By the end of the 2020 season, the seven-time Pro Bowler was their third receiving option. And his role and usage had changed significantly, too.

"I'm used to moving around a lot, put me in different positions," Green said in December. "But in here, we have a talented receiver group so I don't have to move around a lot. For me, everything was new."

With Green's franchise tag expiring, the Bengals could be in the market for another dynamic receiver. It's what makes prospects such as LSU receiver Ja'Marr Chase and Florida tight end Kyle Pitts as intriguing options with the fifth overall pick in the NFL draft. And even if the Bengals pass on both players, their skill sets make sense in coach Zac Taylor's scheme, especially with Joe Burrow at quarterback.

Chase was a dynamic outside target for Burrow at LSU in 2019. According to ESPN Statistics & Information, he ranked second among all Power Five players in receiving touchdowns when lined up outside (14).

"It's pretty easy to throw to him when he has 5 yards of separation every snap," Burrow said in January. "He's an exciting player and a great guy and a friend as well. He was fun to play with."

If Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell is off the board, Chase could be a viable option if he's available and create a strong receiving trio that features Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, a 2020 second-round pick who had a big rookie season.

But even if the Bengals pass on Chase, they will need a receiver who is comfortable in the scheme built for multiple wide receivers.

In 2017, the last time Green played all 16 games before last season, he was Cincinnati's most targeted wide receiver by a large margin with 139 targets. The next closest receiver was Brandon LaFell at 87.

That usage changed drastically in 2020. Boyd had a team-high 108 targets, Green had 107 and Higgins 106. And instead of playing in the slot occasionally, Green almost exclusively lined up outside as the X receiver as he adapted to Taylor's scheme. Based on comments he made at the end of the season, it seemed as if Green was not at ease with that.

"A lot of different, little formations I'm not used to," said Green, who added the routes were also new concepts. "It's usually me, putting me on an island and letting me go win or put me in somewhere, let me go run down the field. It's a little different this year."

However, a big receiving option doesn't necessarily need to come in the form of a traditional wide receiver. Pitts, the Florida tight end who had a breakout 2020, is also a solid candidate for a couple of major reasons.

He isn't a traditional tight end. Last season, Pitts ranked fourth among all Power Five players in yards per route, per ESPN Stats & Info. Pitts had four receiving touchdowns when lined up on the outside. All other Power Five tight ends had three combined.

ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. said it's a mistake to think of the 6-foot-6 Pitts as a traditional tight end. To Kiper, he's more of a "receiving entity" whose versatility makes him a relatively sensible pick for the Bengals if he's available.

"You can move him anywhere you want in that offense and create major matchup problems," Kiper said earlier this month.

And in Taylor's two seasons, tight ends have been used across the formation. In 2019, former Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert was used on the outside on 20.7% of his snaps, the third-highest in the league that season among players at his position, according to ESPN's data. When Eifert left for Jacksonville in the offseason, that number dipped as the Bengals primarily used Drew Sample with C.J. Uzomah out for the majority of the season with an Achilles injury.

But that number could increase with a pass-catching tight end such as Pitts, especially given how Burrow likes to run the offense out of empty formations.

Everything the Bengals do this offseason will be catered around Burrow and improving a team that won four games in 2020.

"Obviously we didn't win as many games as we would have liked," Burrow said. "Hopefully that's the last time we win two games in the first 10 games. I think next year is going to be exciting."