CINCINNATI – The Bengals Training Camp is only a few days away and expectations for the 2021 season are high as Joe Burrow enters his second year.
Head coach Zac Taylor has some of the lowest odds of being the first NFL coach to be fired for a reason.
This team has six wins under his leadership and needs to hit that total in 2021 or better to make fans confident that this team is on the right track. One facet of the game that has been going in this direction for more than two decades is the special team unit.
Deputy Head Coach and Special Team Coordinator Darrin Simmons has run a stable ship for the past decade. Since 2011, the Bengals have only placed themselves outside of the top 12 of the DVOA special teams of Football Outsider twice (2016 and 2017).
But for the first time in this section we could see a new punter and kicker debut for the team. Let’s dive into part two of our Three Down Look training camp.
First Down: Punting Battle?
Kevin “Fine Wine” Huber.
One of the longest-serving Bengals players had the best punting average of his career last year (47.2 yards per punt), but fatherhood is unbeaten. The Bengals got into competition this off-season when they signed the undrafted free agent Drue Chrisman.
Former Ohio State Buckeye averaged 44.6 YPP out of 73 punts in college and had a career high of 45 YPP in his senior year. This made him rank 17th among all college players nationwide.
It remains a mystery how good the La Salle graduate’s chances are of starting for his hometown of Bengals in 2021, but the fact that the team brought him on is fascinating. 35-year-old Huber signed a one-year deal in the off-season and will be the fourth Bengal to ever play more than 200 games for the franchise when it kicks off in 2021.
“We’ll see that well in training camp,” said Simmons during the minicamp. “The competition brings out the best. I have to tell you that I was very impressed. Drue made a good poke in the limited number of days we had here. “
Read more: Training camp Three Down Look: Offense prepared for breakout
Chrisman is a strong talent, but the fact that another rookie could sweep his leg on field goals this year doesn’t help his cause. Few snapper / holder duos have been more reliable than Clark Harris and Huber, who came to the Bengals in 2009 and didn’t leave. The Bengals expect Evan McPherson to win the kicker job in his first training camp, two rookies cracking the starting XI of the specialists would be a shock.
Holding is an overlooked but crucial job for an NFL player. If the rookies make up two-thirds of the kicking equation, Simmons may not be a good enough fit to pull the plug on Huber this year.
Chrisman could ultimately push Huber through the whole camp and end up in the training squad this season.
Second Down: Find a punt returner
Alex Erickson has played the cut line on this Bengals squad for the past few years, but his only ace in the hole each August was the return of the punt. The now Texas recipient has been up and down in terms of return average over the past few years, but his steadfast hands kept him in the role.
Erickson only has two career fumbles and neither was lost. His exit leaves a significant void in this special team unit after averaging the eighth most punt return yards in the league (10.09 yards per return) last season. Simmons made it clear at the mini camp that they were considering several options.
“About as wide open as the Kansas prairie is right now,” said Simmons. “We have several guys pushed into this spot. Trent Taylor certainly has a head start just because he’s done it before in the league. He’s someone I trust to catch the ball in such a short amount of time. Me By the time he came out I had worked him out at Louisiana Tech, so I had a pretty good feeling about him when he came out and watched him during his four years in the league. “
Taylor is one of the few candidates who can take on that role, starting with the only two other players in the roster to punt for the Bengals since 2018. First Darius Phillips. As a Bronco, the product from Western Michigan was a walking highlight role for special teams.
Phillips set the FBS career record with 12 total return touchdowns and finished sixth in FBS history with 3,145 career kickoff return yards. The cornerback came to school as a wide receiver and has been a bit more productive than kicker in his NFL career.
Phillips averages 6.4 YPR on five career punt returns and 21.9 YPR on kickoff returns. In context, the cornerback would have been eighth on the kickoff return average last year, behind Brandon Wilson (26.21 YPR). Phillips has the skills to do the job; We need to see how much Simmons trusts his hands during camp.
Tyler Boyd is the only other player on the roster to have caught a punt for the Bengals since 2018. He would have to be miles ahead of the rest of the contestants to risk this team’s number one slot option at Punting Downs.
Rookie free agent Pooka Williams tested his hand on punt returns at the mini camp, but he only returned seven kicks in his last two years in Kansas. Neither of these were punts, so a flawless camp performance is required to jump over the guy Simmons first referred to.
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 the role and will be fighting for the gig over the next month.
Third down: looking for special teamers who can lend a hand
The subject of this article is talent turnover, which is reflected along the defense line in the special teams room. Rookies, of course, participate in a special team role each year, but a strong mix of seasoned decision makers who have experience with punt and kickoff reporting is crucial.
The Bengals only received six penalties for their entire special team unit in 2020. That was partly because of the timeless Huber-Harris connection, but also because of guys like Jordan Evans, Cethan Carter, Shawn Williams and Brandon. Wilson.
The top three led the Bengals in special team snaps last year, and two will have to replace the roster after leaving the free agency. According to the team ranking, three Bengali were in the top 100 in special team tackles: Carter (10), Wilson (9) and Williams (7).
Carter was an integral part of that equation as a punt protector, and now the leader of Special Teams Snaps 2020 is ready to step up.
“I joked that Jordan Evans was in the front of the room at all of these meetings, and he probably saw the solid protection meeting on punt about 15 times,” said Simmons at the minicamp. “It’s not that he needs it. But the guy sitting in the back row and sitting in this meeting for the first time certainly needs it. There are different levels of knowledge and understanding in the room.”
Evans’ 349 snapshots traversed the entire Special Team unit in 2020, and he holds fifth-year veteran status, which only Samaje Perine tops in the top 10 returning snapshots. Evans has signed a one-year contract and must take the reins and lead that role directly to support the rest of the roles.
It’s a marmot-day feeling for Simmons, who had to replace ace specialteamer Clayton Fejedelem last season and has a year full of fluctuation ahead of him. If anyone can pull the right strings, it’s an 18 year old veteran. Simmons is the only coaching constant bridging the Taylor and Marvin Lewis era.
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