CINCINNATI — Sometimes key football decisions reveal themselves in training camp. That is why it is wise to just let camp play out and see what happens in the end.
Such is the intriguing case of what to do with Trenton Irwin.
The 27-year-old undrafted receiver has spent most of his career since 2019 fighting to stay on the roster from the practice squad. He has fought the good fight hard and coaches and front office personnel have certainly noticed. Last year, he played in a career-high nine games, starting two. He started in all three postseason games as Tyler Boyd battled finger issues.
This camp, Irwin is behind the obvious – Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. Throw in rookies Charlie Jones and Andrei Iosivas and veteran special teamer Stanley Morgan and punt returner Trent Taylor, and you start to see the logjam that is ahead. Injuries can help sort things out but there’s going to be a lot to be decided in the next four weeks at the back-end of the receiver depth chart.
The talented fifth-year receiver out of Stanford reminded everyone at the end of Thursday practice that he has some very special athletic gifts and can apply them on the field at any given moment.
He ran a back-shoulder fade into the end zone created just a smidge of separation with the team’s top active corner in Cam Taylor-Britt and stuck his left hand high in the air and brought down the catch of training camp so far for a touchdown in offense vs. defense drills.
It was such a circus catch that the entire offense, led by Joe Mixon and followed by quarterback Trevor Siemian – who threw the pass – rushed to celebrate with Irwin.
“We got man coverage. In man coverage, safety’s not going to go over the top (and help). Just got to go and make a play.”
When did he know he’d have just one hand free to make the play?
“There wasn’t a lot of thoughts. I look back and I was like, ‘OK, I think I’m getting one (hand) on this one. We’re coming down at the same time near out of bounds line. But it was a great ball, great play.”
Irwin needs to take every opportunity to remind coaches and evaluators that he can make big plays should a Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins or Ja’Marr Chase go down again for an extended period. Thursday was just that reminder.
“I’m hoping that it creates momentum. It’s about making a play, have a good block, have a good moment. It sort of allows everything else to just sort of flow with it. I’m not taking anything away from anything else. There are guys made some helluva plays, made some great plays and down the stretch. That’s what allowed us to win that game or that possession, whatever, it was a drill.”
The reason it was special to Irwin is that it actually helped the offense win the competition with the defense in a first-to-18 points competition. Seven points for a touchdown. A field goal netted three points to the offense and four to the defense. No score at all is seven points to the defense.
“Last two years, we lost… So the last two years we’ve lost and had to do a little gasser after practice. So you don’t want to do that more than once.”
Rookies Charlie Jones and Andrei Iosivas also had touchdowns, with Iosivas winning the scrimmage with a catch in the end zone at the end.
But with Irwin, it was a reminder that he can flat out flash skills that could come in handy. As a matter of fact, they already have. He had two of the three touchdowns against the Patriots last Christmas Eve in the 22-18 win at Gillette Stadium.
In a 23-10 win over the Browns in December, Irwin had a 45-yard touchdown and finished with two catches for 58 yards.
Jones, the fourth-round rookie receiver from Purdue, fell hard on his left shoulder making a highlight reel catch of his own late in Thursday’s practice. He was taken to a cart where trainers led by Matt Summers treated him and then drove him back to the locker room. He did not have a sling on in the locker room.
Another rookie – Iosivas from Princeton – felt for Jones.
“I mean me and him are like best friends,” Iosivas said. “We talk every night. We study every night and he’s a hard worker, just like me and we want to contribute on this team. This team has really hefty goals and we want to be able to contribute to that. So we have a lot on our plate and we both know what it takes to be great. So it’s been great working with him.
“I had surgery going into my senior year of college. So I kind of noticed lights are kind of be where you want to be and then have everything taken from you or what seems taken from you. So, take one day at a time because rehab is no joke. You gotta really be invested in your health and in your and it helps with your well-being as well. If you have something to do something to make you better every day can be a better day. So just take one day at a time.”
Iosivas made the kind of athletic, outstretched grab that caught the attention of scouts leading up to the draft.
“Yeah, I mean definitely I mean that’s that’s what I bring to the table,” Iosivas said. “I think as a player making these athletic plays, and now during training camp, honing in on trying to become a pure receiver, learning from Ja’Marr and Tee, But that’s in my repertoire as well.
“It was cool. I mean you want to make plays and help your team win and in that situation that was the game-winning play. So it was pretty hyped.”
The Bengals appeared to get a bit of fortunate break when Joe Burrow sustained only a right calf strain and nothing more serious. Thought being out of service to the team “several weeks” is not ideal, it’s also believed inside the building that the injury won’t keep him from playing regular season games at full strength.
The team might have also gotten a bit lucky with their best pass protection and third-down back in Trayveon Williams. He went down in individual drills on the first day of full padded practice on Tuesday with a right ankle injury. Turns out it’s just a sprain that will sideline him for at least two weeks.
“We’re good. Taking it day-by-day,” Williams said. “I’ll be ready to get back out there, man. Just went through individual drills, jumped up, landing on a little wrong, but it’s a little sprain so we’d be good back at it, a couple weeks.”
Williams is part of a competition behind Joe Mixon that includes rookie Chase Brown, who looked very, very good in the first two days of padded practice and Chris Evans, the third year back out of Michigan.
“It’s good, man. We have amazing competition all across the board,” Williams said. “Obviously, we do an amazing job when it comes to drafting here and, they brought in some immaculate talent from the defense side, from the offensive side. Even some guys in our room with Chase Brown, he’s an amazing guy and just really everybody across the board. It’s a lot of competition and that’s what going to be. Those type of things that’s going to allow us to propel us and be able to make their Super Bowl push.
“Obviously at the end of the day, I just prepare myself for that third down role and on just focusing on the little things. The biggest thing I could work on is just pass protection. I feel like that’s the strength of my game but just really showing it and putting that on display out there. That really gives me a great opportunity to really be in that role and be that guy.”
This is the weekend that has been long anticipated by friends and family of the late Ken Riley. The “Rattler” out of Florida A&M will be heading into the Pro Football Hall of Fame during enshrinement ceremonies in Canton at noon on Saturday.
Riley finished with 65 career interceptions, by far the most in franchise history. Riley, a sixth-round pick in 1969 out of Florida A&M, spent his entire 15-year career with the Bengals. Five of those were returned for touchdowns, also the most pick-6s in Cincinnati history.
On NBC’s Thursday night broadcast of Jets-Browns from Benson Stadium in Canton, Cris Collinsworth made mention of how much of a leader and mentor Riley was to the rookie out of Florida in 1981 when Collinsworth was trying acclimate to the NFL.
This is what made Riley so respected. He wasn’t just great. He was also a leader to everyone on both sides of the ball in the locker room. Riley was one of the veteran Bengals that cherished the franchise’s first trip to the Super Bowl, coming up short to the 49ers in Super Bowl XVI.
Props to everyone in the Bengals organization that pushed hard for this well-deserved honor for one of the great corners in franchise history.