As Bengals search for answers at receiver, Mario Alford needs to 'fight'

Bengals offensive coordinator Ken Zampese on receiver Mario Alford: "... he's got to fight in such a way that says, 'That's the best I could do on that play to get that ball.'" AP Photo/Gary Landers

CINCINNATI -- Near the beginning of one Cincinnati Bengals practice about two weeks ago, Mario Alford look poised for a breakout morning.

During one of the first seven-on-seven drills of the day, he jumped up high for a pass over the middle that quarterback Andy Dalton put in just the right spot, and came down with it. The fluid movements that went into the catch made it seem as though Alford and Dalton had been connecting that way for years.

But as the practice continued, the second-year receiver from West Virginia had another two passes thrown in his direction that fell incomplete, and in the most head-scratching of ways. The deep balls certainly were just outside his range, requiring an extra gear of speed, maybe a slightly higher-than-notrmal jump, and possibly a one-handed stretch. Had any of that happened, Alford would have at least been close enough to perhaps make a play on both throws.

None of it did. Instead, Alford came up short on the throws. One clanked off a casually extended, outstretched hand. Another fell near him, untouched.

Although offensive coordinator Ken Zampese didn't highlight those plays in a talk with reporters after that practice, he still clearly alluded to them. As Zampese and other coaches navigate life with a bevy of new receivers behind veteran starter A.J. Green, they want Alford to "fight" a little more.

"He's got to make every play that comes his way, and if not, he's got to fight in such a way that says, 'That's the best I could do on that play to get that ball,'" Zampese said. "Outside of that, he, all those kind of guys, they've got to do that every single time. So they can show the effort and the fight that we need, so they can prove to everybody else they're worthy to be there when they get that opportunity."

Opportunity is exactly what Alford will be seeking later this summer when training camp begins. After their three-day minicamp this week, the Bengals are off until they return for training camp at the end of July.

Alford came to Cincinnati last spring as a seventh-round rookie who had one extremely useful quality: the fact he could fly. With a sub-4.3-second 40 time at his pro day last March, Alford had the Bengals believing he needed to be in their camp. He has some return ability, too. Offensively, he came out of a college system that was dramatically simpler and pared down compared to the scheme the Bengals ran under Hue Jackson last season, and the one they will have this year under Zampese.

As a result, the learning curve has been a little high for Alford. That, and the fact the Bengals had real depth at receiver, were big reasons why he was seldom used last season. Alford was active for one game as a rookie, and he caught his only target; a pass for 15 yards.

If Alford wants those numbers to balloon this fall, Zampese's message is simple: keep fighting.