How undrafted wide receiver Stanley Morgan became 'everybody’s favorite player' on the Bengals

Charlie Goldsmith
Cincinnati Enquirer

After Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. made the best play of his NFL career, he expected it to go unnoticed when he got back to the sideline. 

All he had done was block for running back Joe Mixon on a touchdown run in the second quarter against the Las Vegas Raiders. Morgan was the lead blocker for Mixon’s touchdown and pushed the Raiders safety into the sideline. 

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When Morgan reached the bench, he was the center of attention. 

“I felt like that was a small job for me, but then I realized it was a big moment for me,” Morgan said. “If my team felt that way about that block, that’s special.”

After three years of bouncing between the Bengals practice squad and the active roster and after surviving two roster cuts, Morgan was finally in the spotlight.

Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) carries the ball on a touchdown run as Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Stanley Morgan (17) blocks in the second quarter during a NFL Week 11 game, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

The Bengals signed Morgan in 2019 as an undrafted free agent. Then they cut him before the regular season in 2019 and 2020. Morgan developed a reputation as one of the best special teams players on the team, but it wasn't enough for a roster spot over an entire season in 2019 and 2020.

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Now, the Bengals coaches see him as one of the best blocking wide receivers in the NFL. Due to the nature of his role, Morgan has set up his teammates success on special teams and in the run game without receiving any credit outside of the locker room. 

“Stanley is everybody’s favorite player on the team,” Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow said. “But nobody sees what he does.” 

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Stanley Morgan (17) runs up the sideline on a reception in the third quarter of the NFL Preseason Week 3 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Miami Dolphins at Paul Brown Stadium in downtown Cincinnati on Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. The Dolphins made a long touchdown drive in the fourth quarter to win 29-26.

When Morgan was in college, this wasn’t the role he was anticipating in the NFL. 

In college, he made one-handed catches, caught deep touchdown passes and won one-on-one matchups with leaping catches in the air.  He was one of the best playmakers in the Big Ten. He finished his career as Nebraska's all-time leader in receptions (189) and receiving yards (2,747). 

Then Morgan went undrafted, which was a quick snap to reality. 

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“The smart ones figure out what their role is going to be in the NFL,” Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said. “The ones who don’t figure that out just fade away. They have to live with the what ifs.”

Nebraska wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. leaps over Wisconsin cornerback Deron Harrell Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018, at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.
Danny Damiani/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

As soon as the Bengals could, following the 2019 draft, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor offered Morgan an undrafted free agent contract with the Bengals. Cincinnati saw Morgan as a potential developmental receiver, but his biggest impact would have to come on special teams. 

“You think you have so much promise and it doesn’t go as planned,” Morgan said. “You work even harder to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Morgan spent most of his first training camp learning about that role from Simmons. Unlike other undrafted wide receivers who Simmons had seen come and go, Morgan made it a priority to focus on his tackling technique. 

Morgan quickly became a “four-phase player” on special teams who was great on kickoff coverage, punt coverage, kick return coverage and punt return coverage. 

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On offense, he studied the routes of Bengals wide receivers like A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd. But Morgan learned his routes needed to be quicker to get a role in an NFL offense. 

Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) celebrates a touchdown with wide receiver Stanley Morgan (17) in the second quarter of the NFL Week 8 game between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals at Wembley Stadium in Wembley, London, on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019.

That’s what the coaching staff told Morgan when the Bengals cut him in 2019. Even after Morgan was called up from the practice squad during the 2019 season and played a small role down the stretch, he got the same message after 2020 training camp. 

“In 2020, that was the toughest spot of my career,” Morgan said. “I took it as not getting drafted again.”

Morgan still believed he’d get a shot down the road with the Bengals, so he didn’t look to sign with any other team. Even after two seasons where he didn’t make the initial 53-man roster, Morgan still entered training camp in 2021 as the Bengals' third most experienced wide receiver. 

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“The feedback we gave him is, I want you back here with us,” Simmons said. “We want you here, you have a future here. It might not be right this second, but we want you back.”

During this year’s training camp, Bengals wide receivers coach Troy Walters had a one-on-one conversation with Morgan. Walters was Morgan’s offensive coordinator at Nebraska, and Walters cued up Morgan’s college highlight tape. In that conversation, Walters showed Morgan examples of how much Morgan can do as a wide receiver. 

Morgan had already shown everything he needed to on special teams. Walters told Morgan he needed to take another step on offense. Now three months into the season, Morgan is getting double-digit snaps per game because of his ability to set up plays for his teammates. 

“When we ask him to come in (on offense), he blocks his tail off for other guys to make plays,” Burrow said. “Stanley is one of the core players on this team. I don’t know what kind of team we are without Stanley.”

Dec 6, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Stanley Morgan (17) tackles Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jakeem Grant (19) on the punt return during the first half at Hard Rock Stadium.

When Morgan made the initial 53-man roster for the first time in 2021, he didn’t make a big deal out of it. With Simmons, the only congratulations came in the form of a fist bump and a two-sentence conversation. 

Morgan went up to his coach and told him, “Time to go to work.”

“Stanley has outworked everybody that I know,” Simmons said. “He has done everything right and everything we’ve ever asked him to do.”

Even though he’s playing more in 2021, Morgan still only has one catch this year, on a play where he was the last read. Morgan has set up two touchdowns as a run blocker, and he’s earning more snaps with the way he’s able to finish a block against a linebacker. 

“He’s one of the best in the business at blocking,” Walters said. “He not only blocks a guy, but he tries to put him on the ground.

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Stanley Morgan (17) catches a pass during training camp practice, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021, at the practice fields next to Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

After the Bengals win over the Raiders, Taylor mentioned Morgan’s block twice in his postgame press conference. He said it’s a type of play that most receivers won’t make, but Morgan abandoned any expectations about what his role would look like early in his NFL career. 

Morgan’s a special teams ace and an expert run blocker. He knows who he is, and last week the entire Bengals sideline took notice. 

“I’ve been around a lot of guys in this league who have started at the bottom and worked their way up,” Simmons said. “Stanley is the next one.”