Though there is technically an "offseason" in the NFL, dead periods for news and events are few and far between. On-field play has ceased, but various scouting events, highlighted by the Scouting Combine this week in Indianapolis, are at the forefront for the next couple of months.
While the Bengals have had a pretty stacked roster over the past half-decade, one area of the team that has had a yo-yo-like performance is in the return game. Brandon Tate has manned the lion's share of the duties on both punts and kickoffs with mediocre results. Adam Jones has provided huge sparks, albeit infrequently because of his value as a cornerback.
Both are now set to hit free agency and the team has little proven options should both leave. While there are other pressing needs on the team that might be placed ahead of this special teams vacancy, they'll need someone with the capability to pop a big play.
Options Currently on the Roster:
Where most eyes move to when this discussion is brought up is second-year man, Mario Alford. Though he's small, he has blazing speed and dazzled on kick returns while at West Virginia. There is some polishing to be had as both a special teams player and receiver, but the Bengals liked him enough to keep him on the 53-man roster all of last year. Unfortunately, his playing time was almost completely stunted, as he only played in one game (Week 13 versus the Browns) with one catch for 15 yards.
Another polarizing option might be to give Giovani Bernard a shot at returning kicks. He's had a few injuries in his short career, so that obviously plays into the decision, but there's little doubt about his ability to make defenders miss in the open field when the ball is in his hands. He did have two punt returns for touchdowns in 2012 for the North Carolina Tar Heels, so there is at least a little bit of past experience to build off of, if this is a preference. Bernard was said to practice returns during training camp and at points during the season, too.
While exposing Bernard to further injuries is scary, you do need to do what's best for the team and get your best players the ball. If Bernard as a returner and running back gives an option for the team to have its best chance to win, the Bengals should explore it.
Rex Burkhead did act as a returner a handful of times in 2015, but it doesn't seem there's any expectation that will continue. If Jones and Tate leave, the cupboard is pretty bare for the Bengals beyond Alford and Bernard. The Bengals would either need to commit fully to one or both of them, or look elsewhere to fill the potential void.
Available Free Agents:
Honestly, when looking at the list of impending available players, Tate and Jones are two of the better ones set to hit the market. There are a few guys who have flirted with the role like Robert Turbin, Andre Caldwell and Bobby Rainey, to go along with over-the-hill veterans who used to excite like Jacoby Jones and Reggie Bush.
One name that might come into play and provide excitement on a variety of levels is Cleveland Browns wide receiver Travis Benjamin. With all of the issues at quarterback last year, Benjamin still managed 966 receiving yards and added a punt return touchdown to his resume. He has three punt return touchdowns in his four-year career and recent reports indicate his talks with the Browns on a new contract breaking down.
Benjamin might be a quality free agent pickup to help in the return game, but also as a player to cope with the potential losses of Marvin Jones and/or Mohamed Sanu.
This year's class provides interesting options for return men--whether it's a guy like Cyrus Jones who added to Alabama's title run as a punt returner and defensive back, or small school guys who can latch onto an NFL roster as a niche player. A guy I liked at the NFLPA Bowl as a running back with a wide-ranging skill set was Bowling Green's Travis Greene, and the athletic Southern Miss wide receiver, Michael Thomas could prove to be a good NFL returner, too.
Players who are mostly or wholly relegated to return duties aren't usually taken with high picks, so the team could get some value with some of these smaller school guys in the later rounds or as undrafted free agents. These are areas the Bengals have been able to grab some high-potential players of late.
The wild card is Ohio State's Braxton Miller. Some draftniks have a first round grade on him because of his versatility, athleticism and high upside, but I personally wouldn't go higher than the second round for him. He's a project player and teams will need to develop him to be a solid NFL contributor. One such area is in kick returns, where teams want to see what he's capable of, even though he wasn't asked to do so as a Buckeye. Most believe he has the skills to be effective in the role at the next level, regardless of experience at the position.
Sticking with Tate and Jones:
These guys aren't costing Cincinnati games and Jones has used his skills to get them back into some important ones over the years. It's really an argument of sticking with the devil you know versus the one you don't. It's also about the roles these two are wanting going forward.
Tate brings little to the receiver group with just three receiving touchdowns in five seasons as a Bengal. Yet, he still manages to take a roster spot ahead of other talented players. Being deep at other positions on the roster creates this bittersweet effect. It also doesn't help his popularity that he has just one returned touchdown in his five seasons with Cincinnati--all they way back in 2011 against the Seahawks.
Still, the coaches love his stability and durability, as he hasn't missed a game since joining the Bengals. Tate is also the team's career leader in punt return yards (1,411), and No. 2 behind Tremain Mack with 3,517 yards on kickoffs. He would undoubtedly become the leader in that category in 2016, as he only 67 yards from beating Mack's mark. Any way you slice it, Tate won't be a hot commodity on the open market and should be available after the draft, if the Bengals want to ink another short-term deal with him again.
Jones is a completely different story. While he isn't a "lockdown corner", the embattled veteran had the best year at the position in his career and made his first Pro Bowl this year (he was an All-Pro returner in 2014). Cincinnati is facing a quandary at corner and Jones' veteran presence could help. However, he'll be 33-years-old by the time the season starts, and promising youngsters Darqueze Dennard and Josh Shaw would continue to be pushed down the depth chart.
You have to wonder if bringing back Jones with the primary role of returner and not corner might be the best avenue. If not in 2016, maybe in 2017 and beyond? It seems like a ludicrous proposition because of his performance on defense last year, but it might be what's best for the team, long-term. Would he even take a lesser deal with the Bengals in that role as his career winds down?