On August 1, Cincinnati Bengals slot receiver Andrew Hawkins sprained his left ankle. Since that time, he has been spotted on crutches, on a scooter and in a cast. Though he doesn't need surgery, there's still no clear time frame for his return to the field and head coach Marvin Lewis said it's a possibility that Hawkins begins the regular season on the injured reserve-recall list, which would have him out for at least the first six games.
While the Bengals presently have an offense rife with playmakers, not having the speedy, shifty Hawkins does deal a blow. Last year, including the playoffs, Hawkins caught 51 passes for 533 yards and four scores. He did considerable damage to opposing defenses, especially at the early part of the season when teams had no idea the Bengals had such a dangerous, versatile weapon. Hawkins was primed to reprise this role this year, and with so many offensive options for the Bengals, he would have been even more unpredictable to their opponents.
Because of the many options for quarterback Andy Dalton's passes, the Bengals haven't employed a slot receiver very often in their two preseason games. However, when they have used one, the job has belonged to just one player—Dane Sanzenbacher.
Though it's important to note that the Bengals haven't had a true "starting" slot receiver in their first two preseason games with Hawkins out, they also haven't used any other player than Sanzenbacher, who had 30 total snaps in those two games, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He's scored two touchdowns—one, a 36-yard reception, the other, a 71-yard punt return—and caught all three passes thrown his way.
Bigger than the 5'7" Hawkins, at 5'11", Sanzenbacher is nearly as fast and hard to tackle. His speed and reliable hands are what convinced the Chicago Bears to retain him on their active roster in his rookie, 2011 season, despite going undrafted.
In that year, Sanzenbacher caught 27 passes on 54 targets for 276 yards and three touchdowns. His playing time drastically decreased in 2012 after offensive coordinator Mike Martz was replaced by Mike Tice, who didn't employ a traditional slot receiver. As such, Sanzenbacher played in just four games with a lone, seven-yard reception before being released in December.
Based on Sanzenbacher's low snap count in the first two preseason games, it seems to indicate that the Bengals won't be using a dedicated slot receiver all that often while Hawkins continues his recovery. They can instead employ two tight end sets with Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham or throw passes to running back Giovani Bernard to mimic having a slot receiver on the field. However, in moments they want to have a true slot receiver, Sanzenbacher should produce.
Sanzenbacher looks to be more of a marginal role player while taking over for Hawkins, even more than Hawkins himself was last year. Hawkins' by-game snap counts varied greatly last season, playing as many as 40 of 51 snaps in the Wild Card playoff contest against the Houston Texans and 58 of 77 snaps against the Denver Broncos in Week 9, and as few as 20 of a possible 50 snaps against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 7.
Based on Hawkins' playing time last season and what we've seen out of Sanzenbacher so far this preseason, it appears that he'll get 20 to 30 snaps per game while Hawkins is sidelined, especially now that Cincinnati's offense has added both Eifert and Bernard. Though he won't be a high-profile part of the Bengals offense while doing fill-in duty, he should still manage to make an impact, moving the chains and scoring touchdowns using the same tools employed by Hawkins to do the same thing last year.
Ultimately, the best news about Hawkins' ankle injury is that it doesn't leave the Bengals wanting for offensive playmakers. From A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, to Eifert, Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Dalton shouldn't have trouble finding someone to throw a football to this season. But when it comes to slot receivers, Sanzenbacher should prove himself quite useful, even if he's not on the field very often.