CINCINNATI — Bengals Training Camp is just a few days away and expectations for the 2021 season are high as Joe Burrow enters year two.
Head coach Zac Taylor has some of the lowest odds to be the first NFL coach fired for a reason.
This team has six wins under his leadership and will need to match that total or better in 2021 to make fans confident this team is heading in the right direction. One facet of the game that's been going that way for the better part of two decades is the special teams unit.
Assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons has captained a steady ship over the last decade. Since 2011, the Bengals have ranked outside the top-12 of Football Outsider's special teams DVOA just twice (2016 and 2017).
Yet, for the first time in that stretch, we could see a new punter and kicker debut for the team. Let's dive into part two of our Training Camp Three Down Look.
First Down: Punting Battle?
Kevin "Fine Wine" Huber.
One of the Bengals' longest-tenured players had the best punting average of his career last year (47.2 yards per punt), but father time is undefeated. The Bengals brought in competition this offseason when they signed undrafted free agent Drue Chrisman.
The former Ohio State Buckeye averaged 44.6 YPP on 73 punts in college and had a career-high 45 YPP his senior year. That placed him 17th nationally among all college punters.
It remains a mystery how much of a chance the La Salle graduate has of starting for his hometown Bengals in 2021, but the fact that the team brought him in is intriguing. The 35-year-old Huber signed a one-year deal in the offseason and will be the fourth Bengal ever to play 200-plus games for the franchise if he starts in 2021.
"We'll get a good view of that in training camp," Simmons said during minicamp. "Competition brings out the best. I will tell you that I was very impressed. Drue did a good punting in the limited number of days we've had here."
Chrisman is strong talent but the fact another rookie might be sweeping his leg on field goals this year isn't helping his cause. Few snapper/holder duos have been more reliable than Clark Harris and Huber, who joined the Bengals in 2009 and haven't left. The Bengals are expecting Evan McPherson to win the kicking job in his first training camp, two rookies cracking the starting specialists group would be a shock.
Holding is an overlooked but crucial job for an NFL punter. Having rookies makeup two-thirds of the kicking equation may not sit well enough with Simmons for him to pull the plug on Huber this year.
Chrisman could ultimately push Huber throughout camp and end up on the practice squad this season.
Second Down: Finding A Punt Returner
Alex Erickson toed the cut line on this Bengals roster for the last few years, but his one ace in the hole every August was punt returning. The now-Texans receiver was up and down in terms of return average the last few years, but his sure hands kept him in the role.
Erickson only has two career fumbles, and neither was lost. His departure leaves a significant void on this special teams unit after he averaged the eighth-most punt return yards in the league last season (10.09 yards per return). Simmons made it clear at minicamp that they are looking at multiple options.
"About as wide open as the Kansas prairie is right now," Simmons said. "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."
Taylor is one of a few candidates who can take over this role, starting with the only two other players on the roster to field a punt for the Bengals since 2018. First up, Darius Phillips. The Western Michigan product was a walking highlight reel on special teams as a Bronco.
Phillips set the FBS career record with 12 total return touchdowns and ranked sixth in FBS history with 3,145 career kickoff return yards. The cornerback came into school as a wide receiver and has been a little more productive returning kicks rather than punts in his NFL career.
Phillips is averaging 6.4 YPR on five career punt returns and 21.9 YPR on kickoff returns. For context, the cornerback would've ranked eighth behind Brandon Wilson (26.21 YPR) in kickoff return average last year. Phillips has the skills to take over the job; we'll have to see how much Simmons trusts his hands during camp.
Tyler Boyd is the only other player on the roster who has caught a punt for the Bengals since 2018. He'd have to be miles better than the other candidates to risk this team's number one slot option on punting downs.
Rookie free agent Pooka Williams tested his hand at punt returns in minicamp, but he only returned seven kicks in his final two years at Kansas. None of those were punts, so a flawless camp performance is needed to vault over the guy Simmons referenced first.
Taylor was on Simmons' mind for a reason. The fourth-year receiver averaged 12.44 YPR last season and has returned 49 punts in his career, averaging 9.61 YPR. Taylor is the most experienced player in this role and will be battling for the gig over the next month.
Third Down: Finding Special Teamers That Can Tackle
The theme of this article is talent turnover, ringing true along the front line of defense in the special teams' room. Rookies naturally file into a special teams role every year, but a strong mix of veteran decision-makers who've experienced punt and kickoff coverage is crucial.
The Bengals only notched six penalties on their entire special teams unit in 2020. That ranked fourth in the NFL partly because of the timeless Huber-Harris connection, but it was also due to guys like Jordan Evans, Cethan Carter, Shawn Williams, and Brandon Wilson.
The first three led the Bengals in special teams snaps last year, and two need replacing down the roster after leaving in free agency. According to Team Rankings, three Bengals ranked inside the top-100 in special teams tackles: Carter (10), Wilson (9), and Williams (7).
Carter was an integral part of this equation as a punt protector, and now the leader in 2020 special teams snaps is poised to step up.
"I joked Jordan Evans sits up there in the front of the room in all those meetings, and he's seen the solid protection meeting on punt probably about 15 times," Simmons said in minicamp. "It's not like he needs that. But the guy sitting in the back row sitting in that meeting for the first time certainly needs it. There are varying levels of knowledge and understanding in the room."
Evans' 349 snaps paced the entire special teams unit in 2020, and he carries a fifth-year veteran status that only Samaje Perine matches among the top 10 returning snap leaders. Signed to a one-year deal, Evans will need to take the reins and leadership of this role head-on to help the rest of the roles fall in place.
It's a Groundhog Day feel for Simmons, who had to replace ace special teamer Clayton Fejedelem last season and faces a year of heavy turnover. If anyone can pull the right strings, it's an 18-year veteran. Simmons is the lone coaching constant bridging the Taylor and Marvin Lewis eras.
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