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Darrin Simmons tabs Trent Taylor as front-runner for punt returner spot

Taylor can go from tryout player to impact player this Summer.

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NFL: JUN 08 Bengals OTA Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last week, we learned that Cincinnati Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons was trying out several options to replace Alex Erickson as the team’s new punt returner. Trent Taylor, Pooka Williams Jr., and Riley Lees represent the new players to challenge Darius Phillips and even Tyler Boyd for the job.

In speaking with local media Wednesday, Simmons named Taylor as a front-runner for the spot, but the competition is far from over.

Taylor might have an edge over the competition, but Simmons labeled the process being “as wide open as the Kansas prairie.” The edge seems to derive from Taylor being an NFL veteran compared to his rookie teammates.

“Just because he’s done it before in the league,” Simmons said. “He’s somebody that I trust catching the ball in this short period of time. I worked him out down at Louisiana Tech when he came out, so I had a pretty good feel for him when he came out and watched him over the course of his four years in the league.”

Taylor (coincidentally) returned 49 punts during his time with the San Francisco 49ers. That’s 44 more returns on his NFL resume compared to the likes of Phillips, who has mainly been a kickoff return man in his young career.

Phillips may have only returned five punts as a professional, but he returned 32 of them in college. That’s 32 more than Williams did at Kansas. But Simmons, a Kansas native himself, saw the potential in Williams when he worked him out before the 2021 NFL Draft.

“This guy’s built for that spot,” Simmons said. “He just doesn’t have the experience of doing it. He’s really worked his tail off to try to learn to catch it. When I went to Kansas to work him out, it was a little shaky like all these guys are. But the thing that showed up is he does have ability. If we can get the ball in his hands cleanly, this guy has real, real, real quickness and speed and movement and all the things you look for in a punt returner.”

Competition ran fierce the last time the Bengals had a change at punt returner. Erickson literally ran away with the job during the 2016 preseason, just months after he was signed as a college free agent.

Williams appears to have the best chance of becoming that next undrafted story, but the potential Simmons sees in him will need to translate to production if he expects to knock off the experienced Taylor.