With training camp rolling on and the 2015 season inching closer, here's our preview of the Bengals’ special teams unit heading into the regular season.
Comings and Goings:
Departures: James Wright (IR)
Additions: Mario Alford (draft), Desmond Lawrence (UDFA)
Little was gained or lost this offseason with the exception of seventh-round rookie Mario Alford, who could make as big of an impact as any Bengal rookie this year. Not only does he possess the kind of blazing speed the Bengals need more of, but he's a dynamic returner who could unseat Brandon Tate as the team's primary return man.
Alford caught the team's eye when he flashed a 4.27 in the 40-yard dash to highlight his speed. The 5'8", 180-pound receiver returned 37 kickoffs for 972 yards, with a 26.3 yard/return average and two scores.
With news that James Wright won't play in 2015 due to a knee injury, the chances of Alford now making the 53-man roster are very high, even if he's unable to beat out Tate for the main returner spot.
One other man who could fight for the returner duties is Desmond Lawrence, an undrafted free agent receiver out of North Carolina A&T. Lawrence was just signed by the Bengals prior to the start of training camp. This past season, Lawrence caught 42 passes for 386 yards and two touchdowns in a run-heavy offense. He also had a kickoff return average of 33.1 yards.
Back at his Pro Day in April, Lawrence ran the 40-yard dash in 4.35 and 4.38 seconds. He's a track star with speed to burn, and if that translates onto the field as a returner, he's got a shot of making the final roster.
Kicker: Mike Nugent, Tom Obarski
Punter: Kevin Huber
Primary Returners: Brandon Tate, Adam Jones
Others possibly used as returner: Mario Alford, Giovani Bernard, Onterio McCalebb The Bengals special teams has consistently been one of the better units in football during Marvin Lewis' tenure in Cincinnati.
When Lewis was named head coach in 2003, he hired Darrin Simmons as his specials teams coordinator. Simmons has gone one to become one of the best in the game when it comes to taking backups, castoffs and fringe roster players and helping them make an impact in the NFL. Adam Jones, Brandon Tate, Bernard Scott, Quan Cosby, Cedric Peerman, Dan Skuta, Vinny Rey, Tab Perry, Andrew Hawkins, and Jeromy Miles were just a few of the journeyman he's taken and used to consistently build one of the best special teams units.
Simmons has also gotten good production out of his kickers, most of whom have also been journeyman who could never stick for long with other teams. He took Shayne Graham and helped make him one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history during his seven years with the Bengals. Graham hasn't lasted with another team more than two seasons while playing just one year for seven other clubs. Speaking of kickers, Mike Nugent will once again handle those duties in what will be his sixth season with the Bengals after bouncing around with three other teams before joining Cincinnati in 2010. Nugent, who holds the franchise record for most points scored in a single season (132 in 2011), is coming off a 2014 season in which he converted 78.8% of his kicks. He's got this job locked up as long as he's healthy.
At punter, Kevin Huber is coming off another outstanding season in 2014, capped by a Pro Bowl berth. Huber, who ranked fourth among punters in the NFL in ’14 in gross punting average (46.8) and fifth in net (42.1), also earned first-team All-Pro honors from Sporting News. He holds Bengals' franchise career marks for gross punting average (44.6 yards) and net average (39.6).
Just like Nugent, Huber will be the full-time starter so long as he's healthy. The only other kicker/punter even on the roster is Tom Obarski, an undrafted free agent out of Concordia-St. Paul who does have some promise, but likely isn't unseating Nugent as the primary kicker. As for the primary returners, those duties may once again fall to cornerback Adam Jones and wide receiver Brandon Tate. Though Tate has been the full-time guy mostly since joining the Bengals in 2011, Jones actually had more total returns (49) than Tate (36) in 2014. That's not accounting for all of the fair catches Tate had though.
Jones was named PFF's primary kick returner in 2014 after averaging a ridiculous 31.3 yards per return. He'll likely get a lot of run there again in 2015 with Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick earning more playing time at corner to keep Jones fresh. Tate averaged 9.7 yards per punt return in 2014, which isn’t too bad. That was the 14th-highest average of any punt returner with 10+ returns. However, his 22.1 yards per kickoff return was just the 40th-best average of any player who had 10+ kick-off returns.
As for Tate, he averaged 9.7 yards per punt return in 2014, the 14th-highest average of any punt returner with 10+ returns. However, his 22.1 yards per kickoff return was just the 40th-best average of any player who had 10+ kick-off returns. The hope is the Bengals can use Jones more on kick-offs and Tate more on punts. That would make this unit very dangerous in 2015.
Other players getting reps as returners in training camp include running back Giovani Bernard, wide receiver Mario Alford, wide receiver Onterio McCalebb and wide receiver Desmond Lawrence. Of those guys, Alford probably has the best shot at getting some run in the regular season, but expect Tate and Jones to handle those duties for the most part.
Expect the Bengals' special teams to look essentially identical to how it did in 2014. Brandon Tate and Adam Jones will be the primary returners, Mike Nugent will handle all of the kicking duties. Kevin Huber will remain one of the NFL's better punters and may even be selected to the 2016 Pro Bowl.
However, I do believe Giovani Bernard will get some occasional run as a returner. With Jeremy Hill now the clear-cut No. 1 running back, Bernard fresher to take an occasional punt and/or kickoff return to change things up.
Alford will also get an occasional return in hopes he can develop into a full-time returner for next year when both Jones and Tate become free agents.