What Bengals would miss without Hawkins

CINCINNATI -- One of Marvin Lewis' most-used phrases is "explosive plays."

The object of the game defensively is to cut down on the amount of them, the Cincinnati Bengals coach likes to say. Offensively, he adds, the idea is to rack up as many as of them on offense as possible.

Cincinnati Bengals receiver Andrew Hawkins is an explosive play waiting to happen. If the Bengals fail in the next five days to match the offer sheet the Browns have extended the restricted free agent, they could be doing their offense a real disservice.

From the time he stepped foot in Paul Brown Stadium fresh out of the CFL three seasons ago, Hawkins proved that big gains were his forte. Making defenders miss was one of his greatest strengths. The elite, sub-4.4 40-yard speed his 5-foot-7 frame contained was key in his ability to turn a simple screen pass at the line of scrimmage into a 20-, 25- or 30-yard gain downfield.

For a team hellbent on rededicating itself to the run and hoping to use play action among other tools to open up the passing game for quarterback Andy Dalton, screens to the outer edge and quick interior dump routes to slot receivers could help keep linebackers and safeties honest. As the Bengals look to better their offense under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, it would behoove them to do that as much as possible. Given the combination of Hawkins' size with the comparative enormity of the Bengals' offensive tackles and guards and tight ends, Hawkins' potential for confusion could be limitless.

It was tough last season to see just how much havoc Hawkins could cause thanks to an ankle injury that kept him sidelined for most of the season. Even when he returned, he was slow to get back to form, getting caught from behind at the end of a couple big gains because his body wasn't quite in midseason form. He was just beginning to reach that point in the last few weeks of the season, finally starting to feel and look like his old self.

The Browns are banking on an adequate bounce-back year from him. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported they had extended him a multi-year deal. According to other reports, that deal is for four years and $12.2 million. It could climb to near $15 million after escalators are tabulated. NFL Network's Albert Breer reported Hawkins would be making more than $4 million guaranteed.

Such a deal puts to shame the $1.4 million low-round tender the Bengals offered Hawkins and their two other restricted free agents last week. Because of his status as a restricted free agent, though, the Bengals reserve the right to match the offer if they would like. Signs point to them being deliberate across the next five days as they make that decision. (Since this story was originally written, Schefter has reported the Bengals have plans to match the offer)

Hawkins has been a slot receiver most of his entire career. He finished the 2012 season as the Bengals No. 3 pass-catcher behind Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham. With the emergence last fall of Marvin Jones, as well as Mohamed Sanu's high position on the depth chart, Hawkins has been considered by many to be the No. 4 receiver on the team entering free agency. If you include Gresham and fellow tight end Tyler Eifert, Hawkins suddenly slips to the sixth pass-catching option.

Perception and reality aren't always the same. You have to separate 2013 Hawkins from the 2012 version to see his real potential. He didn't have enough opportunities to prove himself last year because of the injury, making it tough to evaluate his year. Still, despite his limited production (12 receptions, 199 yards, no touchdowns), his yard-after-catch numbers impressed.

Of Hawkins' 199 yards, 188 came while he was playing in the slot, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Of those, 114 came after the catch. That means 60.6 percent of his yards gained last season came after the catch. In 2012, 57.2 percent of his yards gained came after the catch. He had 257 yards after the catch, and 449 overall. Only four receivers in the league that year had more yards after the catch while playing in the slot, but none of their percentages of YAC yards came close to Hawkins'.

"Explosive plays" are largely indefinable. Some consider them runs of 15 yards or more or passes of 20 yards or more. Others consider anything greater than 15 yards to be explosive. Following the latter logic, we see that five of Hawkins' 12 catches in 2013 resulted in gains of 15 yards or more. On one of them, he gained 25 yards after the catch. On another, 17. One more picked him up an additional 41 yards.

Credit that quite simply to speed and playmaking ability.

While the former Toledo standout would gladly call Cleveland home the next four years, Cincinnati has a few reasons to prevent that from happening. As the Bengals try to lock down other players whose contracts expire next year, and hold out some sliver of hope that offensive tackle Anthony Collins might be convinced to stay, it may make little sense to spend $3 million per year or more on the No. 4 receiver. But again, the perception about what type of player Hawkins is doesn't meet his reality.

He's a playmaker, pure and simple.