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Bengals’ kick/punt return game looks to be in good hands

The Bengals’ return game was one of the best in the NFL in 2016. Will that remain the case in 2017? It certainly looks promising.

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

The Cincinnati Bengals have a lot of promise at the kick and punt returning positions. Last season, the unit, as a whole, ranked No. 2 in total kick return yards (1,003), No. 3 in kick return average (25.7), and No. 3 in returns of 20 yards or more (26). However, in 2017, there is still a possibility for the unit to improve even more with new potential returners being adding into the mix and slower returners potentially getting worked out.

On the depth chart the Bengals released on Tuesday, there were some interesting names listed for kickoff and punt returning duties.

Kickoff Returner:

  1. Alex Erickson
  2. Joe Mixon
  3. Kermit Whitfield
  4. Tra Carson

Punt Returner:

  1. Adam Jones
  2. Alex Erickson
  3. Tyler Boyd

The state of the Bengals’ kick/punt return game is looking very positive, primarily because of these factors...

Alex Erickson

Erickson finished the 2016 NFL Season as the No. 1 kick returner in the AFC in terms of yards per return (27.9) with at least 20 returns on the season. In fact, only Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson recorded more yards per return than Erickson, and he didn’t see as many returning opportunities (25) as Erickson (29). Only Chicago’s Deonte Thompson (35) and Detroit’s Andre Roberts (33) returned more kickoffs in 2016, and neither came close to averaging the same number of yards per return (23.0 and 22.6, respectively) as Erickson.

In 2017, it should go without saying he is the primary focus of the return game. Even as a punt returner, where his skills shined less in 2016 (7.0 yards per return), he still received the eighth most punt return opportunities in the NFL (28). The Bengals have already explained their plans to roster seven wide receivers in 2017, although it is likely no more than a technical distinction as Erickson only caught eight passes in 2016 and is primarily seen as a return specialist. Regardless, Erickson is expected to remain the bread and butter of the Bengals’ return game in 2017, which bodes very well for the unit’s continued effectiveness.

Adam Jones

Jones’ performance as a kick/punt returner has been declining since his career-year in 2014 (27 kick returns for 844 yards and 22 punt returns for 262 yards). As a result, the Bengals have been phasing him out as the focal point of the returning game. It helps to have a remarkable talent at the position like Erickson, but the Bengals’ need to move on would have been apparent regardless.

Jones is turning 34 at the start of the season, so his age is a big factor when it comes to making the decision to reduce his role in the returning game. Until he proves otherwise, Jones is still a key member of the cornerback corps. A career of pulling double-duty on defense and special teams, particularly in the extremely violent kick/punt returning role, is not ideal for maintaining a player’s health.

The Bengals have recognized the need to phase Jones out of the returning game and his number of touches as a returner have continuously dwindled since 2014, a trend we should see continue going forward. Even kick returning legend Devin Hester started being phased out of the Falcons’ returning plans at age 33, and he played a very small role at wide receiver. Jones still plays a very large role at cornerback so while he could be used from time to time as a spark in the return game, he shouldn’t be relied on too significantly.

New Faces

The process of phasing Jones out of the return game will be marked by the progress of the Bengals’ new faces at the position. Young players like John Ross and Tyler Boyd have been taking reps in training camp and, for the most part, have looked solid in the process. Even undrafted rookie Stanley ‘Boom’ Williams has displayed some promise at the position. There have been a few hiccups along the way, but no more than you would expect from any new player being thrown into the role.

Interestingly, Ross and Williams were not listed on the depth chart as returners, despite practicing there in training camp. Ross, the team’s first round draft pick, has seen quite a few opportunities returning footballs in camp.

“We know he can run with it. We know he has a ton of natural ability, but it’s all the decision making, when to do this, when to do that, how to handle this part in a certain situation, certain time in the game,” special teams coach Darrin Simmons explained to Jay Morrison of Dayton Daily News about Ross. “Those are all things that are completely new to him. He’s been practicing with us for a week. We couldn’t do anything in the offseason, the whole OTAs. We couldn’t do any of this stuff. So again, it’s a work in progress.”

But, there is still a lot of talent there for the young player, who has not returned a punt since 2013.

“Who knows when we take [the training wheels] off. When we take them off, we’ll be depending on him and how fast he can pick this stuff up,” Simmons added of Ross. “I’ve said it many times, much of punt returns is decision making. It’s not their ability and all the other stuff.”

Second round rookie running back Joe Mixon, recently added rookie wide receiver Kermit Whitfield and 2016 practice squad running back Tra Carson are the other names at kick returner on the depth chart, and they’ll likely see some play at the position in the preseason. The same goes for Boyd, who the Bengals would surely like to get more production out of on special teams in addition to his role as the slot receiver for the offense.

In college at Oklahoma, Mixon 22 kick returns for 504 yards (22.9 yards per carry) for 1 touchdown. So, the potential is certainly there for him to do well in the return game at the NFL level, especially considering the Bengals’ typically strong protection work on special teams. And Whitfield is the former Florida State receiver who returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in his team’s 2013 National Championship win, turning around the game, which the Seminoles were losing before that point.

Check out that speed! Carson had very minimal return experience in college with just one kick return in his four year college career (it went for 24 yards), so it will be new for him to add return duties to his role.

The Bengals’ future in the return game looks very bright. The team has an emerging star in Erickson and plenty of potential talent throughout the roster to help the unit get younger, faster, and stronger. With a bit more work and development, this could turn into one of the NFL’s best return units for the long-term.