One of the underrated roster battles the Bengals face this year is who will be their primary returners on special teams.
For now, veteran wide receiver Brandon Tate is the favorite to earn said duties, as has been the case every offseason since 2013. Tate was set to become an unrestricted free agent after a season in which his impact was very minimal in 2015 but the Bengals re-signed him to a one-year extension in March.
Ever since the Bengals initially claimed Tate off waivers from the New England Patriots in 2011, he's been the team's primary returner on both kickoffs and punts.
Through seven NFL seasons, Tate has played in 98 games and returned 154 punts for 1,415 yards (9.2 avg.) with one touchdown. He's also returned 190 kickoffs for 4,680 yards (24.6 avg.) and two more scores.
While neither marks are bad, they aren't exactly game-changing numbers either, the stability and not turning the ball over has been enough that the Bengals coaches like keeping him there. He's also been good about where to field punts and kickoffs in addition as to when to return them or take a knee/call a fair catch.
That's why Tate only returned 18 kickoffs for 413 yards (22.9 avg) and no scores, while returning 27 punts for 171 yards (6.3 avg). The latter is putrid, and the former isn't much better. The level of trust the coaches have in him is really why he keeps getting his job back. In turn, a lack of trust in anyone who's challenged for it has made it easy for Tate to retain his title.
One guy who has gotten limited return attempts while doing much more with them is corner Adam Jones. Though he's become more important because of his work on defense, returns are something he's done well in when given the opportunity.
But after leading the team in kickoff (27) and punt returns (22) in 2014, Jones saw his attempts drop to just 10 kickoffs and 16 punt returns in 2015. You have to think the Bengals may continue to lighten his load there as he turns 33 in September. He's too important of a player on defense to risk him getting an injury on special teams, so I expect him to see less of the return game in 2016.
That's great news for Tate since it means more chances for him as a returner. However, he may have some competition for that job this year in the form of second-year receiver Mario Alford. The former Mountaineer caught the Bengals' attention with his 4.27-second time in the 40-yard dash during the 2014 pre-draft process.
Alford, while a small 5'8" and 180-pounds, did return 37 kickoffs for 972 yards with a 26.3 yard/return average and two scores his final year at WVU. His frame and size will severely limit his potential as an NFL receiver, but it may help his returner chances.
Sometimes the better NFL returners are smaller guys like Devin Hester (5"11"), Leon Washington (5'8"), Benny Cunningham (5'10"), Trindon Holliday (5'5") or even Jones (5'10"). Last year, rookie Ameer Abdullah (5'8") had the second-best kickoff return average at 29.1 yards per return.
In other words, don't discount Alford as potentially being the Bengals' top returner because of his size. But with the Bengals solid at receiver and returner last year, Alford saw action in just one game as a rookie.
It came against the Browns, a game that was a blowout and allowed him to get playing time and catch his first and only NFL pass late in the fourth quarter. He had problems with drops in training camp last year that have continued into OTAs this year, which will keep him from getting reps at receiver if he can't improve.
There's no question Alford is an unknown player at this point, so it's hard to say how much of a contender he is for returner duties. He'll need to have a big training camp and preseason just to make the final roster, and it's possible that only one of he and Tate make the 53-man cut down.
Neither offers much as pass-catchers, so it's hard to see the Bengals keeping two receivers who are only good as returners. Then again, they could as weak as the receiver position is right now with the potential for Tate or Alford to crack the top four of the rotation.
Regardless, Tate remains the favorite for this job in 2016, but expect Alford to be given the chance to unseat him. After all, Alford is only 25 under contract for three more years. Tate turns 29 in October and is on a one-year deal, so in theory, the Bengals can afford to cut Tate more than they can Alford if it's a close battle.
If somehow one of those two isn't the primary returner next year, a darkhorse for those duties is rookie receiver Tyler Boyd. While he's expected to be one of the three main receivers, Boyd did do a lot of damage as a kickoff returner with his 27.6-yard kickoff return average ranking 10th in the NCAA in 2014.
For his career, Boyd averaged 24.4 yards on kickoff returns and 8.8 yards on punt returns. He also returned one punt for a score in 73 combined returns. He's gotten some work as a returner in OTAs, so it will be interesting to see if that continues into training camp and the preseason.
Either way, Boyd is making the final roster. But, I'm not as confident both Alford and Tate will make the cut, and the primary returner duties could decide which guy makes it through to the 53-man roster in September.