If you’ve ever been to an NFL training camp practice, you would know that not all 90 minutes of live practice time is encapsulating football for spectators. The days leading up to the first preseason game is filled with re-establishing offensive install, basic defensive drills, and of course, plenty of special teams run-throughs.
To begin this season, the Bengals will have different offensive and defensive coordinators than when they began the 2017 season. The title of special teams coordinator, however, has remained untouched for a while now with Darrin Simmons still overseeing the unit.
Simmons, whose influence on the construction of the roster has only increased in his tenure in Cincinnati, has a few key decisions to make by the time the roster is needed to be finalized.
The field goal trio of place kicker Randy Bullock, holder/punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris are expected to remain intact for the season. Bullock is the only one with any remote competition, but unlike last year when he had to beat out a fifth-round pick named Jake Elliott, he just has Jonathan Brown to hold off.
Brown, an undrafted soccer player-turned-kicker out of Louisville, is now in his third offseason with the Bengals and at this point is just insurance incase something happens with Bullock. Brown has yet to be used even in the preseason thus far in his on-again, off-again Bengals career. It wouldn’t hurt for his work in camp to be rewarded with a chance in August.
The players Bullock and Brown will be kicking off to in practice are going to be different from the previous year as well. Alex Erickson is on the final year of his three-year rookie contract and is likely the front-runner to uphold his role as the primary return man on experience alone. Erickson has shown to be serviceable but underwhelming in his two years holding down the role, and that’s why competition will exist, even without Adam Jones on the team anymore.
Fifth-round cornerback Darius Phillips has the best chance to overtake Erickson because of his pedigree as a returner in college. Phillips returned kickoffs for Western Michigan for all four years he played and averaged 24.6 yards per return on 130 returns and took five kickoffs to the house. He started returning punts in his third year and averaged 10.2 yards per return on 32 returns and scored once. Phillips will have a chance to showcase his elusiveness and breakaway speed as he’ll get reps right behind Erickson.
The dark horse to become the team’s main punt returner is second-round safety Jessie Bates. In his first year at Wake Forest, he averaged a despicable 4.1 yards per return on 18 returns, but he completely turned it around his second year by averaging nearly 18 yards per return and a score on just nine returns. Bates’ time spent returning punts will be dependent on how much he’s expected to play on defense early on, but he’ll still get some exposure.
For players like Erickson and Philips, their jobs may be dependent on them winning the return man battle. For the players who do the dirty work on kickoff and punt teams, this has always been their reality.
The group now looks up to safety Clayton Fejedelem, who has established himself as the Bengals best special teamer and was a Pro Bowl alternate last year for his efforts in his second season. Fejedelem became the personal protector in Week 4 and lead the team in special teams tackles, he’ll be counted on to elevate those around him to match his level of play.
While Fejedelem’s roster spot is safe, other contributors from 2017 don’t have the same luxury. H-back Cethan Carter was one of two undrafted rookies to make the team last year and was counted on in all phases of special teams week in and week out, but in a crowded position group, he’ll need to replicate that dependability in practice if wants to make the final cut again.
Defensive back Brandon Wilson is in a similar situation, as he flashed on special teams late last year when he finally got healthy, but he’s not guaranteed a roster spot with a surplus of experienced bodies in the secondary. Wilson was acquired via a trade up by the Bengals in the 2017 NFL Draft, so their initial opinion on him was clearly high. It’s up to him to prove them right now he’s left his injury issues in the past.
The other undrafted rookie that made the 53-man roster, Hardy Nickerson, is not expected to make the team this time around. But with Vontaze Burfict suspended to start the season once more, his contributions on special teams from last year could put him back in the conversation if he builds on his rookie season. The final linebacker spot will be given to someone who steps up in special teams; Nickerson qualifies as a candidate, as does undrafted linebacker Chris Worley.
Finally, a couple of fresh faces are also expected to make names for themselves in this department as well. Fourth-round running back Mark Walton was brought in by the team for his versatility and proficiency on special teams just as much as his ability as a backfield threat. He handled multiple roles on punt teams at Miami, and is a shoe-in to be activated throughout the year if he proves his experience and prowess in this area early on.
Another newbie in the running back room, Quinton Flowers, an undrafted quarterback-turned running back out of South Florida, should be ready for anything this camp. In the pre-draft process, he was fielding punts amongst other things that didn’t involve throwing a football. The Bengals have expressed plenty of confidence in Flowers as a football player, and he’ll make this team primarily by handling himself on punt teams.
The most surprising roster decisions made during the final cuts almost always involve turnover in special teams, and their gauntlet of just earning their place on the team starts in training camp.
This concludes our 5-part preview series for Bengals Training Camp 2018.
It’s showtime folks!