Josh Malone has had opportunities before, but the Cincinnati Bengals third-year wide receiver believes this is his best chance to make an impact.
With A.J. Green and John Ross injured, the Bengals are relying on the 2017 fourth-round draft pick early this preseason, and so far, he’s stepping up to become the team’s top receiver behind Tyler Boyd.
Malone, a 23-year-old from Tennessee, has showcased a playmaking ability that eluded him in his first two seasons, coming up with catches in the middle of the field and on the outside and proving to be a worthy redzone target. He should get plenty of opportunities Saturday when the Bengals open the preseason at Kansas City.
“I feel like this is the best opportunity I’ve had since I’ve been here, just to be able to show what I can do,” Malone said. “There’s no pressure. I’ve been trying to prepare for this the past two years, so when opportunities come I’m ready. Now it’s the best opportunity, so I’ve got to take advantage of it.”
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound receiver actually started seven games as a rookie, stepping in as the No. 3 receiver ahead of Ross when he was struggling to adjust to the league and dealing with injury. However, Malone managed just 63 yards and one touchdown on six receptions (17 targets) in 2017 and played in just nine games, with no starts, last year even when the team found need for bodies with Green, Ross and Boyd dealing with injuries at various points in the season.
Malone, who also was limited by a hamstring injury, was targeted just five times in 2018 and had one catch for 12 yards. This training camp, though, he’s looked like a new version of himself, showing speed, strength and some agility in going up on throws in traffic.
“It’s going well,” Malone said. “I’m just taking it one day at a time and just trying to take advantage of every rep I get. I just can’t put too much pressure on myself, just go out there and have fun.”
Head coach Zac Taylor has seen improvement just in the short time he’s worked with Malone, but said it’s important he keep it up. Cody Core and Alex Erickson also have seen increased reps in practices, and Ross is expected back any day now, as Taylor designates him as “day-to-day” with hamstring tightness.
Ross is among a handful of players Taylor will hold back from competition Saturday.
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“I think Josh has been more consistent this fall than he was in the spring, to be quite honest with you,” Taylor said. “You know, we tell those guys it’s still early in camp. You’re consistent now. You’re making good impressions, but we’re asking you to keep that up through these games and we can’t see a drop-off. So. there’s a lot of competition at those receiver spots and those guys all know it.”
Malone said the new offense under Taylor and coordinator Brian Callahan feels like a better fit for his own playing style and allows him to be more creative in his routes.
That’s brought back some of the fun of the game for him, and others as well.
“I feel pretty comfortable with it,” Malone said. “I’ve been getting a lot of reps and opportunities since OTAs, so I’m very familiar with the offense and really been studying and making sure I know everything about the offense. It feels like a better fit for me, and I feel a little more freedom to showcase what I can do.”
Having two years under his belt also helps, even if his production has been limited to this point. Malone saw what Boyd did in his third year, topping 1,000 yards receiving for the first time, and is hoping for a similar leap for himself even if not quite to that extent.
The Bengals certainly need someone to step up in the early going while Green is expected to miss at least one or two regular-season games after undergoing ankle surgery following an injury the first day of camp. Malone is listed behind Green in the depth chart, while Core and Erickson are backups to Boyd and Ross.
“It’s just a different mindset,” Malone said. “By your third year, you should know everything that is going on, even though we have a new coaching staff. It’s about just being more professional in my approach, taking care of my body and on the mental part of it, just handling things in a different aspect.”
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