Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons might be seeing his unit come to a crossroads pretty soon. Simmons started with the Bengals in 2003 and has since helped to build the careers of effective special teams players like Shayne Graham, Tab Perry, Kyle Larson, and Kevin Huber. He has also helped to resurrect the careers of special teams players like Mike Nugent, Adam Jones, and Brandon Tate.
However, pretty soon, Simmons will be faced with a unique challenge that he has yet to encounter with the Bengals. Star kick/punt returner Adam Jones will be 33-years-old in September. So, the Bengals will probably see him start to slow down soon, though, he hasn’t shown that yet. For reference, one of the NFL’s best punt/kick returners Devin Hester is currently 33 and was recently released by the Atlanta Falcons. Although he did play well in 2014 and was injured for much of 2015, he never really reached the same levels of dominance at the position that he did when he was younger in Chicago. As much as Jones might want to hold on to a position that he has been great at for years, the fact that he is also a great cornerback means the Bengals might want to limit his number of returns so that he doesn’t burn out more quickly.
In addition to Jones’ situation, there is the lack of stellar play from Brandon Tate to consider. As one of the Bengals’ two starting returners since 2011, he has become the Bengals all-time punt return leader with 1,411 yards returned and 1 touchdown on 153 touches. That said, he has also fumbled the ball at least once every year that he’s been with the team, fumbling three times in the 2012 during the regular and postseason.
“To make sure we have the ball when the play is over with. That should be the first thing,” Simmons told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “It’s the same answer for the last six straight years. I’m looking for guys that can manage the play correctly. When their number is called, they go out there and make the correct decision. And first and foremost that we have the ball when the play is over.”
To be fair, Tate didn’t lose most of his fumbles to the other team and has been a reliable body to hold down the returning position for the Bengals while also providing some depth at receiver. But, the Bengals could do better than his 9.2 yards per return. It would benefit the team to find a reliable returner who is as dangerous as Jones, whose 11.4 yards per return has led to a much more exciting career.
“It’s great we catch the ball. I’d like to make some positive yardage,” Simmons said. “I want to be able to score. We hit a lot of doubles and triples around here. I’d like some homers.”
Simmons seems to be generally satisfied having a usually-reliable returner like Tate to work with for now. But, he also used more baseball analogies to explain the Bengals’ need for more potency in the kick return game.
“There are plenty of guys in the Hall of Fame who aren’t home-run hitters. Pete Rose, right?” Simmons said. “I’d like to have two home-run hitters. Who do you pitch to? Who do you put on base? Make them think a little.”
The need for another home run hitter is quite strong heading into the 2016 season. The Bengals need to evaluate which other talented players could be worked in to make an impact in the returning game and that will happen in the preseason. As of now, these are their best options (other than Jones — who will continue returning as long as he can — and Tate).
Despite Jeremy Hill’s struggles in 2015, Bernard will be the No. 2 running back in 2016 and probably for a long time going forward. But, as an extremely talented and agile player, the Bengals might do well to try to maximize his touches. He performed well as a kick returner in his college days at UNC (two returns for a touchdown in 2012). So, it seems like a good idea to let him relieve some of Jones’ stress and Tate’s ineffectiveness.
There’s a chance that Alford won’t even make the roster this year. But, if he does, the Bengals drafted him to potentially be a kick returner anyway. He’ll need to work on being decisive with his returns rather than dancing around too much. He also needs to make sure to catch the ball, as he’s dropped at least one punt in camp. But, it’s impossible to develop a talented player without throwing them into the fire at some point. He will receive plenty of opportunities in the preseason to return kicks and punts.
As an undrafted rookie in 2016 and the last kick/punt returning option on the Bengals’ official depth chart, Erickson is more likely to make the practice squad than roster this year. But, he was the 13th ranked punt returner in the nation in 2015 with the Wisconsin Badgers, averaging 7.3 yards per return. He could potentially be an option to throw into the mix if he overcomes the incredible odds of beating out six or seven of the other receivers competing to make the Bengals’ roster.
Boyd will definitely be a big part of the Bengals’ offensive gameplan this season, so it’s hard to see the Bengals wanting to risk the health of their second round draft pick in 2016 on the chance that he can make a significant impact in the returning game. But, Boyd is listed as the very last option at punt returner on the team’s official depth chart and he does have a history of playing well as a returner in high school and college.
It’s hard to say exactly who will be the best option at kick/punt returner in 2016 and beyond. Simmons seems to appreciate the talent that he has at his disposal, but, he doesn’t want to make any commitments until he sees his guys in real action.
“I try to replicate game situations as closely as I can, but it’s not close,” Simmons said. “You have to see what they do in a game.”
We’ll see what these potential up and coming returners can do on Friday night when the Bengals face the Vikings in their preseason opener.