How important are special teams? Very.
Or look at the Bengals’ coaching staff, where you’ll find that Associate Head Coach and Special Teams Coordinator Darrin Simmons has the longest tenure. He’s going into his 19th season and perhaps the most highly-regarded member of the staff.
Simmons has consistently produced some of the top special teams units in the league, and guided the group to another top-10 finish last year despite losing its top tackler from 2019, Clayton Fejedelem. And the always-optimistic Simmons is looking forward to another good group.
“We’re off to a good start with a lot of these young guys,” Simmons said in an interview with Bengals.com. “We’ll see how it shakes out. We’re a lot further along than most. I feel good about us that way.”
Admittedly, he does have reason for optimism. The Bengals have a solid group of veterans with a long list of accomplishments and younger talent. Kevin Huber, a former first team All-Pro punter who finished in the top 10 at his position last year, is back for his 13th season. He is going to have some competition, though, in the form of the strong-legged Drue Chrisman out of Ohio State.
Long snapper Clark Harris, meanwhile, returns for his 15th season, and Brandon Wilson, who led the NFL in average yards per kickoff a couple of years ago, will be back to return kickoffs. Linebacker Jordan Evans takes over the mantle as special teams maven for the departed Cethan Carter. This stability is something Simmons sees as a major advantage.
“Our guys are in a good place mentally,” he said. “When [training camp] rolls around, it’s go time, no more holding back then... The people upstairs did a good job of getting the core nucleus of guys back, which was fantastic.”
The Bengals will likely feature a new placekicker, Evan McPherson, who Cincinnati drafted in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. The former Florida Gator converted 17 of 22 field goals last year and made all 52 extra point attempts.
Still, there are still a lot of holes to fill. One of the biggest is at punt returner, a job Simmons said is “about as wide open as the Kansas prairie is right now.” Among those fighting to claim that role are: Trent Taylor, a free-agent signee from the San Francisco 49ers with valuable NFL experience at the position; former Kansas running back Pooka Williams, who never caught a punt in college; Riley Lees, who caught 53 punts in college at Northwestern; and Trenton Irwin of Stanford, who was signed to the Bengals practice squad in 2019.
And then there is the matter of filling out the special teams unit. Simmons is counting on the defensive backfield to help with that. “The most important roster to me is 46-man roster,” Simmons said. “Who are the two back-up safeties, who are the fourth and fifth corners, who are the fourth and fifth linebackers?”
As things stand right now, the back-up safeties will likely be Wilson and Trayvon Henderson, and the fourth and fifth corners look like Eli Apple and Ricardo Allen. Evans and Markus Bailey, meanwhile, are probably the next men up at linebacker.
While those players look to be backups at their respective defensive positions, they will be counted on to make plays on punts and kickoffs. “When you’re building the bottom half of the roster,” Simmons explained, “those are the guys who better be big-time contributors for you on special teams. That’s what winning teams do. Everybody has a role, and they understand what that role is.”
Is up to Simmons to put the right people in those roles. And he has shown, time and time again, that he is up for the challenge.