There is always one late-round pick or undrafted free agent that fans love to root for during Bengals training camp.
Following the 2021 NFL draft, the Bengals added six college free agents to their roster. That means six players will try to make their NFL dreams come true while bypassing the draft.
The model for UDFAs would be Alex Erickson. He went undrafted in 2016 and ended up playing five seasons in Cincinnati. The Bengals’ didn’t bring him back for a sixth, so the search is on for the next Erickson.
Roster spots for UDFAs are never guaranteed, but in any given year, there might be one or two spots up for grabs. By and large, these players went undrafted for one reason or another, but some work hard to prove what a mistake that was.
What will each UDFA that the Bengals picked up in May have to do in order to secure a roster spot?
Pooka Williams Jr.: Return punts
The Bengals only carried four running backs last year, and three of them are back. The Bengals also drafted Chris Evans, so it seems like the running back room is full at the moment.
It seems like if there is any vulnerability in the running back room, it’s Trayveon Williams. Pooka Williams needs to everything Williams can do, plus some. One opportunity he has will be on special teams returning punts.
Alex Erickson caught every single punt the Bengals received in 2020, but he’s now a Houston Texan. Darius Phillips returned three punts in 2019, so that’s who Williams will have to beat out.
If he can prove that he is the best punt returner the Bengals have, then he should get a spot on the Bengals’ roster. That's how Erickson got his spot, and he held it for five years.
Riley Lees: Show off explosiveness and quickness
Lees was a slot receiver with Northwestern, but didn’t show enough there to be drafted. However, with Erickson gone, that opens up a path to the roster for Lees.
Just like Williams, Lees will have to contribute on special teams. Returning punts won’t hurt, but coverage on kicks and punts will be crucial as well.
However, Lees has the opportunity to fill a role that no one else on the roster currently holds. Lees needs to prove himself on offense as a gadget player. Erickson had a few plays as a gadget player from time to time, but this is something that Zac Taylor would probably love to do more. Lees is just a shade slower than Erickson, but if he can work on his explosiveness and quickness, he can carve out a niche role that would have little competition.
Drue Chrisman: Beat out Kevin Huber
The path to the roster for Chrisman is through a 36-year old veteran in Huber.
Huber doesn’t appear to hampered by age quite yet, and still has one year left on his contract. It’s going to be an uphill battle for Chrisman. He has to outdo Huber by a wide margin.
The Bengals’ plan for Chrisman is probably to stash him on the practice squad this year and make him Huber’s replacement for next year. But if he wants to make the roster this year, he has to prove himself against the former Pro Bowler.
Pro Wells and Darius Hodge: Whatever the coaching staff asks
For Wells and Hodge, versatility is the name of the game.
The tight end room is full of undrafted players, like Thaddeus Moss, Mitchell Wilcox, and Cheyenne O’Grady. There might be two backup spots, so the competition will be intense. So how does Wells rise above the pack? By run blocking, pass protecting, route running, making contested catches, and probably a few more things. He has to show that he’s versatile and can stand for either C.J. Uzomah or Drew Sample if need be.
The same goes for Hodge, who was the fourth EDGE prospect the Bengals added in 2021 after Joseph Ossai, Cam Sample, and Wyatt Hubert.
Hodge has to prove that he can fit the scheme and play multiple positions. He has to rush the passer, bring down running backs, and even cover tight ends. He has to show Lou Anarumo that he can play in any scenario.
Antonio Phillips: Excel in special teams
The Bengals carried six cornerbacks last season, and added two in free agency. There are five virtual locks at the position, so Antonio Phillips will have to compete with Jalen Davis, Donnie Lewis, Winston Rose, and Tony Brown for those last one or two spots. He also has to excel at special teams, which means he is also competing against Pooka Williams, Lees, and a number of other eager youngsters.
Of all the UDFAs, Phillips has the murkiest path to the roster.