At this time last year, Alex Erickson was fighting for his NFL life, just as it had begun.
One year later, Erickson is again fighting for a roster spot, despite having a highly impressive season as a rookie return man in 2016. The Bengals ended up drafting not one, not two, but three players with great returner skills this year.
It began in Round 1 with receiver John Ross, who has four career kickoffs returned for touchdowns. In Round 2, Cincinnati got Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon, who returned one kickoff for a score against Ohio State last season. Then in Round 6, Cincinnati took Houston defensive back/running back Brandon Wilson, who also had two touchdown returns in college. And in addition to Ross qt reveiver, the Bengals spent a fourth-round pick on Tennessee wide receiver Josh Malone, who has drawn rave reviews in offseason workouts.
But even with adversity once again facing Erickson, he’s perfectly fine with it.
“You don’t really know who they’re going to draft and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Erickson told Bengals.com. “They’re part of the Bengals now and they’re one of us. As a competitor and a professional athlete, if the room is deeper, everybody is going to be pushing and getting better. That’s good for the Bengals.”
For now, all Erickson can do is continue to hone his craft and help make the Bengals’ special teams unit even more special in 2017. He’ll be hard pressed to top his rookie campaign in which he led the NFL in preseason punt returns with a 30.8-yard punt return average (six attempts), including an 80-yarder for a touchdown in his preseason debut against the Vikings.
Erickson went on to average 27.9 yards per kickoff return and 7.0 yards per punt return in the regular season, leading the NFL in kick return yardage and ranking second in kick return yards per attempt.
But don’t tell Erickson that was all him. He knows every big return comes as the result of great blocking from the other 10 men in front of him.
“I think it was a point of pride for the entire unit,” said Erickson. “I don’t like to say it was my number, because it was our number. There are 10 guys blocking in front of me and we all have to do our job. It’s a collective unit and we take great pride in trying to be the best in the NFL. It was kind of a tale of two seasons with our return units. It was slow to start and not up to our standard and then we really got going and started playing to our potential. It showed in the second half of the season.”
You could argue Cody Core should be the second-year receiver in danger of losing his roster spot, but he showed he’s a more capable pass-catcher than Erickson as a rookie, not to mention Core has far more upside after spending a good portion of his college career at defensive back. Core has also received significant praise this offseason and looks to be in great positioning to make the roster again.
That said, wide receivers coach James Urban likes the improvement he’s seen from Erickson as a pass-catcher this offseason, too.
“The kid never ceases to raise my eyebrows,” said Urban. “He can play inside, he can play outside, and he can play all three positions at any time. He can run all day, he knows the subtleties of how to play, he’s competitive, and he’s fiery.”
While you could argue Erickson has locked up his roster spot with how well he played as a rookie, he’ll be fighting for his roster life this preseason, and he’s ready for it.
“Like I said last year as an undrafted free agent – you’re going to have to compete for your spot,” Erickson said. “Now after a successful first year, you’re still going to have to compete for your spot. That’s the NFL. It’s the best of the best. There are a lot of great players out there and you have to bring it every single day.”
The good news is the Bengals will do everything to keep Erickson and the other talented receivers on the 53-man roster. It’s not that Erickson’s roster spot is in jeopardy as much he just has to go out and do what he did last season to keep it secure, which is sounds like he’s more than ready to do.