The Cincinnati Bengals opted to go in a different direction when they allowed Alex Erickson to walk this offseason. He had been the team’s punt returner since he made the team as an undrafted free agent in 2016.
The leader to replace him in all likelihood is Bengals cornerback Darius Phillips, who was a fantastic returner in college. However, Phillips has struggled to stay healthy, and he is only under contract for one more season. Cincinnati also did a pretty good job of grabbing some interesting names to possibly push Phillips for the job.
Two of the more dynamic options have the downside of never really returning punts in games before. Undrafted Kansas running back Pooka Williams made a name for himself by consistently making defenders miss in the open field. He also possesses incredible agility, which gives him one of the sickest juke/stutter moves you will ever see. He also has that homerun speed to take a kick to the house that was severely lacking with Erickson.
Next up is Chris Evans, the Bengals sixth round running back out of Michigan, who fielded one punt in college. He is FAST. There is no doubt that if he has a lane on a return that he will definitely be making a house call.
That isn’t to say he doesn’t have the ability to break a few tackles as well. He may not leave defenders grasping for air, but Evans knows when to change directions. He also has a little more power than Williams as shown off with his stiff arm and ability to run through some arm tackles.
Bengals undrafted wide receiver out of Northwestern, Riley Lees, has drawn direct comparisons to Erickson himself. He caught 53 punts in college, which makes him one of the more experienced players there early in rookie minicamp. Reliable is probably one of the best ways to describe Lees as a returner. He may not have the upside of his fellow rookies, but you don’t have to worry about him missing punts.
Finally, there is Trent Taylor who is a veteran wide receiver the Bengals signed after he tried out for the team. He had a promising start to his career with the 49ers, but injuries derailed his career there. Ironically enough, he has also drawn comparisons to Erickson as a returner and shifty slot receiver. He is a guy who has done this job in the NFL, which gives him an extra leg up on the rookies.
Cincinnati’s head coach seems pleased with the direction of the competition.
“It was impressive,” Zac Taylor told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “Four guys catching a lot of punts, no balls on the ground really until the end when we made them carry multiple balls and juggle and the things it’s fun to sit there and watch and not actually do.
“But I was impressed. All four of those guys did a nice job. We need some competition at that position with Alex leaving. That’s something you’ll see battling all through the offseason and training camp and finding a guy that can do that.”
All four of these players seem to be fighting for spots on the 53-man roster, and one of the easiest ways there is to also have value on special teams. If one of these guys starts to pull away during training camp or the preseason it could give them an edge when the tough decisions are made on who to actually roster.