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Bengals surveying new options at punt returner

A couple college free agents and a recent camp tryout are under special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons’ microscope at Bengals OTAs.

NFL: Cincinnati Benglas OTA Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Handling roster turnover is part of being an NFL coach, but Darrin Simmons could at least count on one piece of continuity for the last five years.

Alex Erickson spent the first five years of his ongoing NFL career as the Bengals’ primary punt returner. Erickson is now a member of the Houston Texans, so Simmons—heading into his year 19th year on Cincinnati’s staff—is now in the process of deciding a replacement.

Many have pegged veteran cornerback Darius Phillips to inherit that role, but Simmons is also trying out undrafted free agent signees Pooka Williams Jr. and Riley Lees, as well as veteran receiver Trent Taylor.

Per Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com, Williams—specifically—is making an impression as a first-time punt returner.

Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons continues to hunt for a punt returner among undrafted rookies Pooka Williams Jr., and Riley Lees and veteran Trent Taylor. Williams is getting more and more comfortable catching punts for the first time in his life and is gaining confidence by the day in a roster joust that probably won’t be decide until the pre-season finale.

Williams stood out when the Bengals announced their class of just six college free agents. He was an electric ball-carrier at Kansas who had a legitimate chance of being drafted. Now, as one of six running backs on Cincinnati’s roster, he needs to make notable impact to make the final roster. Winning out as Simmons’ new punt returner represents his best chance of keeping his roster spot.

Lees and Taylor are in a much more crowded receivers room. Taylor has a good chance of making the final 53 regardless of his punt-returning abilities since Tyler Boyd needs a new backup at slot receiver. Lees could also snag that spot from Taylor, but he’ll need a quality training camp to win that battle.

While Erickson managed to hold onto the spot for half a decade, he was often challenged for it. Now that he’s out of the picture, the competition feels like a wide-open race, and one that will not be decided until right before the season.