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Bengals top training camp storylines: Kick return duties

Next month, a number of positional battles will ensue in Bengals training camp. Once again, the question of who will be returning kicks for the team will be under the microscope in 2017.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 Cincinnati Bengals will have an interesting training camp approaching, fit for another edition of the HBO documentary, “Hard Knocks”. While stars litter both sides of the ball, there are a number of new faces clamoring for a final roster spot.

A couple of the more interesting and important areas of the team in their quest to return to the postseason this year happen to be on special teams. After fans clamored for a change from the 2011-2015 Brandon Tate era, Alex Erickson wowed everyone in the 2016 preseason.

He followed up his impressive August by leading the NFL in kickoff return yards and yards per kickoff return in the regular season. Punt returns weren’t necessarily a forte of the team, as it has been over the past few years, as both Erickson and Adam Jones struggled to get the offense solid field position in that aspect of the game.

Erickson has the inside track once again on the return man job, but there are other issues surfacing—namely crowded position groups. With the team’s addition of John Ross and Josh Malone at receiver in this year’s draft class, and Joe Mixon, a guy who has kick return ability in his college past, Erickson seems to once again have a bit of an uphill climb onto the final roster.

Complicating matters is Jones. While he has been an All-Pro return man for the Bengals, a number of factors are calling his value with the team into question. Age, an off-field issue this offseason, and a decline in his return abilities last year have also muddied the waters of the position battle.

Also throwing some intrigue into the equation is Marvin Lewis’ status at the team’s head coach. For the first time since 2010, it appears as if the team is prepared to have him stay in “lame-duck” status this year. Because of that, Lewis may be a bit more inclined to “go for broke” when it comes to playing the youngsters and putting his stars on the field at all times.

Will the Bengals go with Ross or Mixon, as the New Orleans Saints went back in the mid-2000s when they let No. 2 overall pick, Reggie Bush, return kicks, despite his high draft status? Or, will the Bengals keep seven wide receivers and allow Erickson to once again be their return man?

Regardless of the outcome, it’s one of the more interesting storylines heading into the Bengals’ 2017 training camp.

The players in the mix: Alex Erickson, Adam Jones, John Ross and Joe Mixon.

A potential wild card: Giovani Bernard may see his offensive snaps decrease if Mixon ends up performing as what has been advertised in minicamp. If the Bengals don’t want to risk injuries to Ross and Mixon, the dabbling in the camp experiments of Bernard returning kicks might be another interesting option.

While it seems like an unlikely option on the surface, Bernard was an effective returner at North Carolina and Jones struggled mightily in the role last year. The argument of using starters and high-usage role players on kick returns is the risk of injury, but a team should always get its best players on the field in all scenarios.

The quirk here, aside from Bernard only sporadically returning kicks in Bengals practices and not actual games, is his recovery from an ACL injury he suffered back in Week 11 of last year. If the Bengals don’t want to put Mixon and Ross at risk and are looking for an additional role for Bernard, we could see his elusiveness on special teams. It’s an unlikely option, but one the team could further explore in camp.

Early Prediction: Erickson should keep his job as the primary returner, with Jones sprinkled in on punts. There’s an unlikely chance the Bengals use Ross and/or Mixon in the preseason back there, but for now, with the team aiming to keep seven wideouts, Erickson will be the last in the group as both a contributor on offense and special teams.