CINCINNATI — The Bengals wrapped up their offseason program on Tuesday, as every player on the roster has been in town for the past month working out and practicing at Paul Brown Stadium.
Punt returner is one key position battle that has already captured the attention of Bengals fans. Former starter Alex Erickson signed with Houston in March.
That means Trent Taylor, Darius Phillips, Pooka Williams and others will battle to be the starting punt returner this season.
Taylor appears to be the favorite, but it'll be an open competition.
"About as wide open as the Kansas prairie is right now," special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said Wednesday. "We've got several guys who are going to be thrust into that spot. Trent Taylor certainly has a leg up just because he's done it before in the league. 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."
Williams, an undrafted rookie out of Kansas, is another interesting candidate. He didn't return punts in college, but has unique quickness and playmaking ability.
"He's done some kickoff return work, but we really need somebody to return punts. This guy's built for that spot, he just doesn't have the experience of doing it," Simmons said. "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. He has the ability to adjust, ability to move, and that's what you're looking for when you go to these things. It's not necessarily the complete, finished product. It's not the execution of it. But can you see little blips of the athleticism, like 'man, this guy with some coaching and making him understand how to do it, he can do it.' And I think that's going to be the case. 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."
Cornerback Darius Phillips will also be in the mix. Like Taylor, he has experience returning punts, but durability is a concern. He's missed 12 games due to injury over the past two seasons and was limited during the Bengals' offseason program.
Taylor, Williams and Phillips give the Bengals a nice variety to work with in their search for a starting punt returner.
It's safe to mention Trenton Irwin and Riley Lees, who both returned punts in college and got some work there this offseason. Simmons is going to be busy evaluating his options during training camp.
Ultimately, the Bengals are hoping one of these guys separates himself from the pack after having Erickson back there for the past five seasons.
"Let's face it, with Alex Erickson, we didn't know Alex was going to be able to do it when he got here," Simmons said. "Then he made a couple splash plays in the preseason. So hopefully one of these guys will make some of those plays in preseason games and make our job easy."
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