Last season wasn’t a good one for the Cincinnati Bengals. Yet, one of the bright spots on the roster was rookie wide receiver/kick returner Alex Erickson.
The former Wisconsin wide receiver did the unthinkable and unseated Brandon Tate as the team’s primary return-man, ousting Tate after what many believed was a far-too-long stay in Cincinnati.
How’d he do it? Erickson took the NFL by storm in the preseason with 185 punt return yards for an average of 30.83 yards per return and 1 touchdown. Only two other players had a punt return touchdown in the preseason and Erickson led the league in both punt return yards and average yards per return. He was named PFF’s top returner of the preseason and earned himself a spot on the Bengals’ 53-man roster. It took him some time to heat up once the regular season got underway, but his impressive play returned and he got better and better as his rookie year wore on.
Erickson finished the 2016 season with the most kick return yards in the league (810) and the second highest average yards per return (27.93). Unfortunately, he didn't score any touchdowns in the regular season, though he did have an 84 yard return, which was the eighth longest any NFL player had in 2016.
With that kind of production, Erickson would have to be a lock to make the roster in 2017, right? Well... not necessarily.
Weight: 195 pounds
Hometown: Darlington, Wisconsin
Experience: Second-Year Player
Draft Status: Undrafted
Erickson is on the second year of the three year, $1,620,000 contract, which he signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2016 as an undrafted free agent. In 2017, Erickson will earn a base salary of $540,000, while carrying a cap hit of $543,000 and a dead cap value of $6,000, according to Spotrac.
Erickson joined the Bengals as an undrafted free agent following the 2016 NFL Draft. Prior to that, he spent three years at Wisconsin where he racked up 141 catches for 1,877 yards and 6 touchdowns. He didn't get involved in the return game at Wisconsin until his final year of college when he had 24 punt returns for 176 yards (7.3 yards per return average) and 2 kick returns for 37 yards (18.5 yards per return average).
Erickson was considered a longshot to make the Bengals’ roster in 2016, but his impressive preseason performance both on offense and special teams gave the Bengals all the proof they needed that it was time to move on from Tate and appoint a new return man in Cincinnati.
In addition to the stand-out returning stats Erickson amassed in the preseason, he also added 10 catches for 77 yards and 1 touchdown as well as 2 rushes for 11 yards.
During the regular season, Erickson rarely contributed on offense (he caught six passes for 71 yards all season), but his special teams impact was more than enough for him to maintain a deserving spot on the roster. He was one of three rookies on the Bengals’ gameday roster for all 16 games in 2016.
Could the Bengals actually move on from Erickson in 2017?
Returning from last year’s roster are receivers A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell, Tyler Boyd, Cody Core and Erickson. Additionally, the team added a first round draft pick at the position in John Ross and a fourth rounder, Josh Malone. Suddenly, the wide receiver room is crowded and that’s not even considering other undrafted players and practice squad mainstays from the last few years who are still on the roster, too.
If the top guys at the wide receiver position remain healthy through the preseason, it may come down to a numbers game. Can the Bengals afford to keep seven wide receivers on the roster? Is there an option to replace Erickson in the return game?
The Bengals say they will try to keep seven receivers on the roster, which would seemingly offer enough room for Erickson to make the cut. But things could get complicated this summer.
Ross and second round draft pick Joe Mixon both have returner abilities as does sixth round defensive back Brandon Wilson. With that said, Erickson proved himself last summer and he’s ready to do the same this summer.
“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.”
Heading into training camp, I believe Erickson will make the Bengals’ 53-man roster in 2017. Considering how long the team relied on Tate for solely his return abilities, it would be more than surprising to see the Bengals turn on Erickson after such an impressive season on special teams.
Roster Odds: 75%