However you look at it, the Cincinnati Bengals special teams have changed dramatically from the unit Evan McPherson was drafted into two years ago. Of course, special teams involve kickers, punters, and long snappers, but there are so many more people involved.
Between the kickoff team, the kickoff return team, the punt team, the punt block team (no self-respecting coach calls in the punt return team), the field goal/PAT team, and the field goal/PAT block team, that‘s six units of 11 players. And those are just the team’s that you expect to see at least once in every game. That’s not even including the onside kick team or the hands team.
When the third tight end leaves in free agency, it may not seem like a big deal to the offense, but it matters on special teams.
When they draft a defensive back in the seventh round, you probably aren’t going to see him covering Amari Cooper any time soon, but you could see him covering kicks this year.
Behind the scenes, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons is evaluating every single player on the roster to determine what they can do to help his units.
Let’s take a look at what he’s up to this year.
The most obvious change is the loss of veteran punter Kevin Huber, who has hung up his cleats after a long and successful career in Cincinnati. There are, however, a number of other important special teams players who were not retained by the club.
Linebacker Clay Johnston, who led the team in special teams snaps a year ago, remains a free agent. Then there’s new Falcons defensive back Tre Flowers, who played more than half of the Bengals special teams snaps in 2022.
New Broncos running back Samaje Perine played a large part on special teams as well, and it should also be noted that after missing all of last season with an injury, kick returner Brandon Wilson will not be returning in 2023.
The biggest additions came through the draft as the Bengals selected Purdue wide receiver and return man Charlie Jones in the fourth round, then Michigan punter Brad Robbins in the sixth round. More on them later.
There are a number of other players from this draft class who could play a large role on special teams. Third-round selection Jordan Battle is renowned for his intelligence and is an excellent tackler. I would expect to see a lot of him on special teams. He will likely be on the kickoff team, and I could definitely see him emerging as the personal protector on the punt team.
Another sixth-round pick grad, Andrei Iosivas, is an incredible athlete who I could definitely see becoming a gunner on the punt team. I would imagine the Princeton grad is pretty intelligent as well and should have no problem learning a number of special teams assignments.
It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s also true that many young players need to contribute to special teams in order to make the roster. The Bengals have raved about seventh-round defensive back D.J. Ivey’s physical tools, but to make the cut in a deep defensive backfield, he will need to find a role on special teams. Likewise, undrafted wide receiver Shedrick Jackson is a long shot to make the team unless Simmons can make use of his 4.25 speed.
Running back Chase Brown isn’t getting cut, but to be active on game day, he will likely need to contribute in some form on special teams, and it would be helpful if DJ Turner could do the same.
Punting the Sweet Fantastic
The punter situation is kind of like the Bond movies. Kevin Huber is getting a little long in the tooth and short in the leg, and it is time for him to retire. Of course, the transition from Sean Connery to Roger Moore was not a smooth one. There was a forgettable movie starring George Lazenby.
Drue Chrisman took Huber’s place last season, but the team was not happy with his performance, particularly with regard to his lackluster hang time, so they drafted Brad Robbins to compete for the job.
Many fans were ready to move on from Chrisman after his final punt in the AFC Championship Game went right to the returner and set up the drive that ended the Bengals’ season. Then he had to go out and work for Door Dash in an effort to help local restaurants and feed the needy. (The jerk!) This act of altruism makes him very hard to root against. Chrisman’s recent hospitalization has kept him away from the start of camp, further hurting his chances of winning the job.
Huber is like Daniel Craig, going out while he is still appreciated. We all know that he should be replaced by Idris Elba, Craig, not Huber, but you never know. There could be a surprise casting like Harry Styles, and it might just work.
So is Chrisman George Lazenby or Harry Styles? Only time will tell.
Turn the Page
From “Old Time Rock & Roll” to “Night Moves,” I love singing along with Bob Seger songs, but the first Seger song I came to know was “Turn the Page.” Just like Luke Combs’s cover of the Tracy Chapman classic “Fast Car” has exposed the song to a new generation, it was Metallica’s version of “Turn the Page” that eventually led me to the original. While a great production of a great song can never truly be duplicated, it can be honored by the next generation.
The transition from longtime long-snapper and cult hero Clark Harris to Cal Adomitis was simply a matter of turning the page. The transition was mostly a smooth one. There was a little blip with Harris getting hurt in a game where Adomitis was not active, causing some problems, but just like the blip in the MCU, the problem was solved with the snap of a finger.
Money in The Banks
Speaking of the MCU, remakes are not simply honoring the original, some exceed the original by a great measure. Have you ever seen a Marvel adaptation from before the 90s? Don’t get me wrong, Lou Ferrigno‘s Incredible Hulk was pretty cool, but Captain America running around in that outfit...not so much.
Making a comic book like Thor into a watchable movie and kicking field goals in the NFL are definitely not easy things to do. It takes time to work these things out, but Marvel finally figured it out, and so did the Bengals when they selected Evan McPherson.
McPherson has made some big-time clutch kicks for the Bengals but still needs to improve on his consistency. Last year, he endured a change at long snapper, and the change at punter (currently in process) also means there will be a new holder.
Chrisman didn’t have any issues last season, and Robbins did a good job in this role in college, so I do not anticipate any issues, but there needs to be trust and comfort between McPherson and the rest of the operation.
Sequels rarely surpass the original, but when they do, it is something special. Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day comes to mind.
I’m no expert on the horror genre, so I couldn’t tell you what the best Final Destination movie was, but Final Destination 2 stands out because of one scene. If you have seen this movie, you know the scene I am talking about because you think about it as you immediately switch lanes whenever you see a log truck in front of you on the highway.
We all do it, even if we haven’t seen the movie in years or even decades. That’s power. That’s what special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons likes to call “the fear of God,” and it’s exactly what he is looking for in a returner.
Enter Charlie Jones.
It is incredibly hard to field a punt with the coverage team barreling down on you, particularly in the NFL, where punters not only have great hang time but the skill to make balls change direction multiple times during their descent. Jones will need to earn Simmons’s trust in order to usurp Trent Taylor as the punt returner, but if he can do that he will have opposing special teams coordinators switching lanes every time they see him.
The solution to the punter situation seems to be in hand as Brad Robbins will likely win the job during training camp. With Evan McPherson taking care of the field goals and PATs, the special teams unit is in good
Darrin Simmons has replaced core special teams players like Clay Fejedelem in the past and should have no problem finding suitable replacements in all roles. And if you don’t think we take Simmons for granted, read the previous sentence a couple more times.
Charlie Jones is really the x-factor who could make this unit something special if he proves to be a dynamic punt and kick returner.
Will McPherson be good or great? To be great he has to become more consistent. He’s made some big kicks, but he needs to become automatic when it comes to the chip shots.
Overall, this is a very young unit, and the future looks bright as long as Simmons does not get a head coaching offer in the offseason.