When most people think about special teams they think about the kicker, the punter, and the kickoff/punt returners. Those are the most high-profile positions.
Some people will think about the long snapper and the personal protector, but most people don’t notice these positions until they make a mistake. Even if you include these players on your mental checklist, you are still only considering a fraction of special teams players.
There are six special teams units (Kickoff, Kickoff Return, Punt, Punt Return, Field Goal/XP and Field Goal/XP block), each of which has 11 starters. This means that there are 66 starting positions available on special teams with many players doubling up on roles.
Last year, the Bengals ran 443 special teams plays, but the total number of plays is not the most important thing. What is more important is the wide range of outcomes on any given special teams play.
For example, a punt could get downed at the 1-yard line, but it could also be blocked or returned for a touchdown. Each of those outcomes is game-changing and both teams have a chance to make a big play.
Despite their record, the Bengals had one of the best special teams units in the NFL in 2019.
Unfortunately, the Bengals suffered the loss of some key special teams players this offseason and could lose more as position battles play themselves out in camp. As a result, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons will have his work cut out for him in 2020.
Let’s start by talking about some key losses. Then we will discuss players who is competing for these roles in 2020.
Special Teams losses
Clayton Fejedelem played more special teams snaps than any other Bengals last season. He played 379 snaps on special teams which was over 85% of the team’s special teams snaps. To give you some perspective, long snapper Clark Harris, punter Kevin Huber, and kicker Randy Bullock played 374 snaps combined last season.
Fejedelem’s most notable role was that of the personal protector on the punt team. The personal protector is the last line of defense, preventing a blocked punt. He is also essentially the quarterback of the punt team, who has the ability to change the protection and audible to a fake punt. This is an important role.
LaRoy Reynolds was a late addition for the Bengals, but ended up tied with cornerback Tony McRae for 4th on the team in special teams snaps with 259. Both Reynolds and McRae were notable for their work on coverage teams and neither is with the team in 2020. Hardy Nickerson also played a large role on coverage units and had 170 total snaps on special teams.
This quartet totaled over 1,000 reps on special teams last season, all of which will need to be replaced.
This year there are no preseason games, which some fans don’t mind, but I like preseason football because special teams reps in preseason can be a good predictor of who is going to get those last few spots on the final roster.
For instance, last season Auden Tate started getting some preseason work on the kickoff return team towards the end of preseason while Josh Malone was not getting special teams reps.
The pair were competing for a spot near the bottom of the initial wide receiver depth chart. A 5th or 6th wide receiver does not need to be a special teams ace, but he needs to contribute. Tate made the team. Malone did not.
In Week 1 of 2019, Tate played on 9 special teams snaps. He quickly rose up the offensive depth chart and once he started playing 50+ snaps on offense, his appearances on special teams became sporadic.
While Tate may never be an elite special teams player, he needed to play a role to earn his roster spot which helped him eventually become a key offensive contributor.
In addition to wide receivers; linebackers, tight ends, defensive backs, and even running backs who are not going to see a lot of action on offense or defense at the beginning of the season need to make some sort of contribution on special teams.
Let’s take a position by position look at players who could earn their roster slot on special teams.
The special teams losses may not have ended with Fejedelem, Reynolds, McRae, and Nickerson. With the addition of several linebackers, Jordan Evans is going to have a hard time making the final cut. Evans played 306 snaps on special teams last year, second only to Fejedelem.
Veteran addition, Austin Calitro played 429 special teams snaps over the last 2 seasons and will certainly look to make an impression on Coach Simmons.
2019 rookie Germaine Pratt had 189 special teams snaps last season. 146 of them came in the 1st 8 games prior to Pratt becoming a regular defensive starter.
This is the blueprint of what we should expect from rookies Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither, and Markus Bailey.
If they are not playing significant snaps on defense, they will need to be key contributors on special teams in order to be on the active roster. As each works his way up on the defensive depth chart, his snaps will shift from special teams to defense.
Cethan Carter had just two fewer special teams snaps than Evans, making his 304 special teams snaps the 3rd most on the team. He is likely to make the team, but being below Drew Sample and C.J. Uzomah on the offensive depth chart, it is conceivable that he could be surpassed by Mason Schreck, Jordan Franks, or even rookie Mitchell Wilcox in training camp and end up being cut.
Schreck, Franks, and Wilcox would need to prove that they can be major contributors on special teams to usurp Carter from this position.
Uzomah played a relatively large role on special teams as well with 158 special teams snaps last season. Sample played 92 special teams snaps in just 9 games as a rookie.
While these 2 will take a larger piece of the offensive pie due to the departure of Tyler Eifert, both will continue to play a role on special teams as well.
Perhaps the most competitive position in training camp this year is wide receiver.
A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, John Ross, Tee Higgins, and Tate are shoe-ins to make the team, barring injury or unexpected trade.
Any other receiver will have to contribute on special teams to make the cut.
Despite not being active for the first 4 weeks of the season, Stanley Morgan Jr. ended the season with 177 special teams reps under his belt. He stood out as a gunner on the punt team, spread out wide and defeating blocks to get to the returner.
Newcomer and camp offensive standout Mike Thomas played 213 special teams snaps for the Rams last season.
Longtime Bengal Alex Erickson has played a visible special teams role as the team’s punt returner in recent seasons, but at the end of the year, Darius Phillips started to get more of these reps.
Erickson only played a total of 85 snaps on special teams last season. If he is unseated as the team’s punt returner, he could quickly become a cut candidate.
If the Bengals want to hang on to Trenton Irwin, DaMarkus Lodge, or Scotty Washington they will have to find a role for them on special teams.
His kickoff return touchdown against the Ravens was certainly a highlight for Brandon Wilson, but it was only the tip of the iceberg when if comes to his special teams contributions.
Wilson played 212 snaps on special teams in 2019 and stood out in punt coverage as well as kickoff return.
This combined with his defensive versatility should make Wilson a lock to make the final roster.
Fellow safety Shawn Williams played 144 snaps on special teams, which is particularly impressive because it is in addition to his 1,003 defensive snaps.
Newcomer Vonn Bell played 87 special teams snaps for the Saints last season, particularly on the kickoff team.
Expect both Williams and Bell to play key roles on both defense and special teams in 2020.
With Jessie Bates III Williams, Bell, and Wilson established at safety, Trayvon Henderson and recently acquired Maurice Smith will need to prove their worth on special teams to make the team.
Cornerback Darius Phillips played 108 special teams reps last year, both returning kicks and covering them, but with the injury of Trae Waynes, he could find himself starting on defense. This may lead to a smaller special teams role.
The Bengals have a deep group of cornerbacks, so players like Greg Mabin, Tony Brown, Torry McTyer, and Winston Rose will need to find a role on special teams to make the 53-man roster.
If you want to make the Bengals roster as a running back and your name isn’t Joe Mixon or Giovani Bernard, you better play special teams. Even if your name is Giovani Bernard, you may find yourself on special teams.
Reports from Bengals camp are that Bernard has been taking snaps as the personal protector on the punt team with the departure of Fejedelem. This makes a ton of sense. His ability as a pass blocker will translate nicely to this new role and as a talented running back, he could have great success on fake punts.
2019 rookie Trayveon Williams played 124 special teams reps last season. It is likely that only 3 running backs will be active on gameday, so Jacques Patrick and Samaje Perine would have to find a special teams role in order to suit up on Sundays.
Need to contribute
NFL rosters are not big enough to have players who do not contribute. When a player is competing for the 6th wide receiver slot, the 5th cornerback slot, or the 3rd running back slot, he had better be able to contribute on special teams.
In Simmons, the Bengals have perhaps the best special teams coordinators in the league. With the departure of several key special teams players he has a lot of snaps to replace this season, but Bengals fans should be confident in his ability to find the right players for the right roles.