Mohamed Sanu: The Emergence of a Star?

Even after getting dominated by the Patriots, midway through 2014 the Cincinnati Bengals sit atop the AFC North ‒ largely on the strength of their defense and a solid ground attack, despite a sub-par overall passing game. Dan Katz takes a closer look at one of the bright spots of their air assault.

The Bengals’ selection of Mohamed Sanu in the third round of the 2012 draft appeared to be a mixed bag entering 2014. The wide receiver left Rutgers after his junior year as the Big East’s all-time leader with 210 receptions, including an astounding 115 catches in his final season. The former Scarlet Knight had also been a weapon out of the backfield in his first two collegiate seasons, running for more than 300 yards in both campaigns before becoming a full-time receiver in his final year. However, he was a literal man among boys, playing against much younger competition at age 20 his “freshman” year – by comparison, Aaron Hernandez played half of his first NFL season at 20 years old. In addition, Sanu was perceived to be a limited athlete who would not be able to stretch the field.

A.J. Green is unquestionably the star receiver for the Bengals and Sanu entered training camp in 2012 in an open audition for the #2 role with Armon Binns, Brandon Tate and another 2012 draftee, 5th rounder Marvin Jones. The job initially went to Binns while lightning-quick Andrew Hawkins manned the slot, relegating Sanu to rare 00 personnel groups and special teams duties. Despite playing only 49 offensive snaps the first nine weeks, he managed to flash his potential. On the first play of a Week 3 contest in Washington, he showed his versatility, lining up at quarterback (his position in high school) and uncorking a 73-yard touchdown pass to Green:

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Jones sprained his MCL on the opening kickoff in Week 7 against Pittsburgh in a game where he was supposed to get the majority of snaps. By Week 10, Binns (who ended up being released) and Tate both proved ill-suited for the role opposite Green, while in a home date with the Giants, Sanu got his first extended opportunity. He did not disappoint, reeling in four catches on six targets for 47 yards, including this play for a 10-yard touchdown where he outmuscles Prince Amukamara on a contested catch:

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Success followed in the next two weeks. His yardage totals in games against Kansas City and Oakland were modest but he continued to display a knack for the end zone, catching three more touchdowns and scoring in a variety of ways:

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Above is a nifty move on then-Chiefs star corner Brandon Flowers. Next, he makes an incredible one-handed catch on a fade:

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He also displays good recognition of the coverage, finding a hole in the zone:

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Unfortunately, just as the Bengals thought they had found another weapon to pair with Green, Sanu suffered a stress fracture in his left foot in practice after the Week 12 Oakland game. He was placed on injured reserve and lost for the season.

Sanu reportedly recovered fully from the injury in time for OTAs in 2013 but was unable to replicate his strong rookie season. Despite featuring as the 2nd wide receiver, he never topped six catches or 68 yards all season, with only two touchdowns. Sanu was one of the league’s worst receivers by Football Outsiders’ DYAR and DVOA metrics.

The limitations in his scouting report bore themselves out over a larger sample size. His lack of straight-line speed made him one-dimensional, as he was unable to gain separation from defensive backs that could jam him at the line. In addition, Jones came on incredibly strong down the stretch, averaging 14 yards per catch and scoring 10 touchdowns despite playing more than 200 fewer snaps than Sanu. The job was firmly Jones’ entering this season, while Sanu had to fight for scraps in the slot in new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson’s run-heavy offense.

These being the Bengals, the injury bug struck, with Jones hurting his ankle during an offseason workout. While rehabbing, he broke his left foot and was placed on season-ending injured reserve. Although reports indicated Sanu was having a very strong camp, he needed to prove himself a quality option and not a liability opposite Green.

After a quiet opener (four catches on five targets for 36 yards) against Baltimore’s strong secondary, Sanu started to heat up. He beat Atlanta’s Robert Alford out of the slot for a 76-yard touchdown in Week 2:

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He also threw a 50-yard completion to Tate later in the game:

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In Week 3 against Tennessee, he again made his case as the Bengals’ best quarterback (I’m only half-joking), throwing his second career TD, this one an 18-yarder to Dalton:

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After the bye week Cincinnati was blown out by the Patriots in Week 5, but Sanu finally showed an ability to make plays down the field as he beat Alfonzo Dennard for a 37-yard score:

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Sanu was emerging as a dynamic playmaker, but he was still the second-option in Cincinnati. However, Green aggravated a toe injury during practice before Week 6 and was lost for three weeks.

Now, Sanu was the No.1 receiver, replacing a true superstar. Bengals’ fans hadn’t forgotten the past; despite having a good season, he seemed immensely under-qualified to replace Green. Sanu cared nothing for those doubts, reeling in 10 catches on 14 targets for 120 yards against Carolina, and showcasing his newfound ability to make plays down the field. Here he scorches Melvin White down the left sideline for a 34-yard score:

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In their Week 7 debacle against Indianapolis, which saw the entire offense melt down and fail to protect the passer, Sanu logged a disappointing three catches on nine targets for a paltry 54 yards.

He eased some doubt in a huge Week 8 rematch with Baltimore. Sanu started the game with a juggling 48-yard catch on the first drive:

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But it was his performance with the game in the balance that made Bengals fans believers. With Cincinnati trailing 24-20 late and facing 3rd and 10 from their own 20, Sanu streaked down the left sideline and made an excellent adjustment to the ball in midair for a 53-yard gain to keep the drive alive:

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With Green returning for a Week 9 date with Jacksonville, Sanu’s role was expected to shrink. Instead, he reeled in four more balls for 95 yards, including two more outstanding catches and a touchdown:

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At the club’s midway point, he’s on pace for 78 catches, 1,256 yards, an average reception of 16+ yards, and eight touchdowns. Those figures were out of any Bengals fan’s dreams at the start of the season. While he still has some of the same flaws that he’s always had, he’s become very good at making plays against off/zone coverage and has improved his ability to beat press coverage considerably. When factoring his ability to be part of gadget plays (he’s 4-for-4 passing for 166 yards and two TDs in his career), he’s become a very fun player to root for on Sundays.

All video and images courtesy and NFL Game Rewind.

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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking downmatchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.

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