Several Cincinnati Bengals wide receivers said they were surprised the team terminated the contract of veteran Brandon LaFell on Thursday, but the only thing that should have been unforeseen was the timing of the transaction.
The emergence of third-year receiver Tyler Boyd and the promise shown by youngsters John Ross, Josh Malone, Alex Erickson and rookie Auden Tate reduced by the day the likelihood LaFell would be in Cincinnati beyond Labor Day.
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Cutting the 31-year-old veteran when the Bengals did serves the dual purpose of giving LaFell time to sign with another team more than a month before the season opener while creating more practice reps for the 10 receivers on the roster with two or fewer years of experience.
“It’s definitely an opportunity there for the taking,” said Malone, a second-year receiver who had six catches for 63 yards and a touchdown in limited action last season and was have an impressive training camp before tweaking his hamstring Sunday.
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“Every guy is making huge plays out there,” added third-year receive Tyler Boyd, who arguably has been the most impressive player, at any position, through the first week of camp.
“(The young guys) are making the competition much higher, making guys do great things, bringing out the best of everybody,” Boyd continued. “That’s something I love being a part of.”
A.J. Green, who turned 30 Tuesday, assumes the role as the oldest player in the receiver room. The seven-time Pro Bowler has 556 catches for 8,213 yards and 57 touchdowns, while the other 10 receivers on the team have combined for 117 receptions, 1,342 yards and five touchdowns.
Green said he has faith in the young, unproven cast around him, but he still was disappointed to lose LaFell.
“We’ve got guys that can really play,” Green said. “The business side sucks, because you form this relationship and the next day he could be gone. Me and Brandon became real close this last year. It’s tough, but it’s a business. And he knows the business side of it.”
A veteran of eight NFL seasons, LaFell spent the last two with the Bengals, playing in all 32 games with 29 starts while catching for 116 passes for 1,410 yards and nine touchdowns.
“We want to thank Brandon for his contributions to Bengals,” head coach Marvin Lewis said in a statement. “He has been a consummate pro and teammate, a strong voice on the team and a great mentor for the young players. We wish him and his family the best in the future.”
LaFell’s contributions went beyond the field, Green said. And the irony in his release is that’s the area where LaFell was most effective.
“Teaching the young guys, he’s more vocal than I am,” Green said. “I’m a quiet guy, and he would talk to those young guys more and take them under his wing. He’s a friendly guy, and he wants these young guys to learn. We’re going to miss that about him.”
Boyd used phrases such as “shocking” and “mind-blowing” when talking about LaFell’s release.
“It’s the business you come into,” Boyd said. “I didn’t see it coming. I don’t think A.J. even saw it coming. At end of the day, that’s my boy. (LaFell) was my guy that welcomed me and was a locker mate. “
The Bengals already were counting on Boyd to play an increased role after he capped his rough sophomore season with 10 catches for 120 yards in the back-to-back victories to end the season, including the 49-yard game-winner on fourth and 12 in the finale at Baltimore.
LaFell’s release, which was hinted at by Lewis after the first practice of camp when he said he was “feeling the heat” from the youngsters, is a signal that the Bengals believe Malone and Ross, specifically, are ready to be key pieces of the offense.
“It’s hard to replace the experience and what Brandon just brought to the room as a guy,” Malone said. “But it’s a decision that was made, and me and John just have to step up and produce.”