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Bengals Mailbag: Expansive wide receiver talent and kicking game update

A couple of the questions we received this week centered around Alex Erickson and how the rest of the receiver unit is looking in OTAs. Might there be another dark horse youngster who’ll shine in the preseason?

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The unfortunate truth about the the NFL is that many young, talented individuals will no longer be employed by the completion of summer. Many players’ longtime dreams will have been crushed as they get back to basics to strive for another opportunity.

As fans, we try not to look at the preseason process that way, preferring to look at the personnel-vetting process as an interesting one, where competition brings out the best in athletes. Heck, it’s why a number of NFL fans are obsessed with the drama that HBO’s “Hard Knocks” gives us.

The Cincinnati Bengals are in the midst of some major transition, both by their design and because their hand has been forced. Even so, we’re all curious as to how the roster will shake out over the next three months.

On last week’s Orange and Black Insider podcast episode and through social media, we received a number of questions on this front. Ranging from the often-asked questions on the offensive line to the status of a couple of other young players rebounding from a serious 2016 injury, the high-upside Bengals appear to have a cautiously-optimistic fan base at the moment.

One of the areas we were asked about on OBI was how the kicking game has been looking. In OTAs, accurate reports on how players are looking can be spotty. It’s not necessarily an issue of proper coverage of the sessions, but that they are far more mellow than what we will be seeing in the coming months.

As Connor Howe and I addressed the question on the show, we noted that reports haven’t been raving about rookie Jake Elliott, or both Randy Bullock and Jonathan Brown. Still, it was important for us to note that the Bengals made a concerted effort to improve one of their most questionable positions coming into this year.

Some believe that Elliott was a bit of a reach in the fifth round, while others don’t think Bullock is a viable option, but both present better efficiencies than what the embattled Mike Nugent suffered through in 2016. One of the areas that Cincinnati needed vast improvement in was extra points. As most NFL fans know, the emphasis on extra points has increased with the rule change of it being moved back recently.

Though the NCAA ranks haven’t caught up in the same manner, Elliott was a staggering 202-for-202 on extra points in his four years at Memphis. And, though he had a sub-66-percent rate on field goals as a sophomore, Elliott cracked the 80-percent rate on kicks in the other three years.

While some of the stats with Elliott and Bullock do not necessarily scream “Pro Bowler”, very few things could rival the frustration the team endured on this special teams aspect in 2016. While you hate to point at one player as a result for a loss in a team sport, there was at least a small handful of games that could have had different results without Nugent’s often-routine struggles.

You can download the audio link from this OBI segment on SoundCloud here.

*****

Alex Erickson will once again be one of the more interesting storylines of the preseason for the second straight year. Last year, Erickson was so explosive as a receiver and return man, that the team had its hand forced to get rid of veteran incumbent, Brandon Tate. And, as Ethan noted above, Erickson followed up his outstanding preseason by leading the NFL in kick return yards and average yards per kickoff return.

But, there just wasn’t the same kind of production that we wholly saw in the summer months. Erickson didn’t have any regular-season touchdowns as a receiver or return man, which were prevalent in the preseason (two receiving, one punt return). He also wasn’t as explosive on punts in the regular season as he was in preseason, which is cause for a little bit of concern going into 2017. We knew he’d be buried on the receiver depth chart and he would be going up against true NFL talent and not scrubs, but some expected more.

Add in the Bengals selecting John Ross and Joe Mixon in the first two rounds this year—guys who had some kick return opportunities in college—and the questions on Erickson become understandable. Still, this is a guy who flipped field position to aid the offense in big games (Washington, Pittsburgh) with the quality plays fans desperately wanted out of Tate in the previous five seasons.

Tying in Erickson’s 2017 status with the club to “Clint’s” question on the roster status of the position, indications point to the team wanting to hang on to seven receivers, however difficult it may seem to become a possibility. They’ll need to get creative by hanging on to versatile options in the secondary and offensive line, though the latter is widely seen as the current weakest unit on the team.

As of now, A.J. Green, Ross, Tyler Boyd and Brandon LaFell all seem like locks. Given the team’s apparent view of Josh Malone as a second-round talent they grabbed in the fourth, he could be safe as well, with the final spot or two coming down to Erickson, Cody Core and the ever-enigmatic Jake Kumerow.

After hovering around the final roster since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2015, Kumerow was the preseason hero that preceded Erickson in 2016. His size (6’5”, 210 pounds) and hands have been the talk of the past two offseasons, but has only suited up for one regular-season game, which was the Week 17 finale against the Ravens last year and didn’t see a snap.

Receivers coach James Urban, who is widely-known as one of the best in his craft, recognizes the depth he’s working with in his unit—including Kumerow. Not only did he recently note the importance of this offseason for Kumerow, but so did the receiver himself as he begins yet another quest to the Bengals’ final roster.

“Coaches have maybe a higher expectation for me this year in that I know the offense better and I’ve been here compared to guys that haven’t,” Kumerow said via The Cincinnati Enquirer recently. “So yeah, possibly they might hold a higher expectation of me but I always hold high expectations for myself so I’m just ready to go man and ready for these games to start coming.”

The additions of Ross, Boyd, Core and Malone in the past two drafts and Erickson’s emergence in games rather than Kumerow’s in practices, has kept Kumerow on the practice squad. And even though he has an uphill battle against Malone, Core and Erickson to make the team this year, I believe he’ll give them a big run for their money.

But, if you’re asking me now about the final receiver unit will look at this moment in time, I see them keeping seven wide receivers, with the excuse that Erickson is technically a specialist. Green, Ross, Boyd, Core, Malone, LaFell and Erickson seem to be those seven.

I will say that I think the Bengals want to see more out of Erickson as a receiver again this preseason for him to make another run at the final roster, given how the unit was hit with inexperience and injuries last year. For all of the fan ire Tate received over the years, he was always productive in the preseason which helped his cause.

One specific battle to watch at receiver doesn’t include Erickson or Kumerow. Because of their size/speed/skill set identities, Malone and Core will be an interesting one to watch—especially if the team is forced to keep just six wideouts.

The real question might be which low-profile youngster will step up at the position this preseason?