As the 2014 training camp gets under way so does Brandon Tate’s annual wide receiver camp enticement. But this shouldn’t entice the team nor should it deter them from seeking the better overall player and possibly the more dynamic returner. These options are there and this team possesses far to much talent to squander a roster spot on simply a kick return specialist hence allowing other teams to pick through the additional talent they release.
The Bengals have expressed their confidence in Tate as a returner, but the kick return game has changed in recent years and the NFL has begun to negate the play. In 2011 it changed the kickoff rules by having the ball initially placed at the 35 yard line versus the 30. It’s resulted in a major increase in touchbacks and less opportunities to advance the ball past the 20 yard line as kicking teams can reach returners deeper within the receiving team’s territory. Tate did give the Bengals the seventh best average starting position following kickoffs last year according to Football Outsiders, but this stat comes with a caveat that works against Tate’s overall value. When initially considering seventh out of 32 teams this stat looks impressive, but a deeper look shows the difference between first and 32nd in the league is a mere 5.27 yards. This reality makes the initially impressive statistic less appealing (for reference the difference between seventh and 32nd is 2.84 yards).
Another strong point about Tate that has been highlighted by the Bengals is his reliability for ball control. Tate is clearly an intelligent returner making the correct decisions and possesses reliable hands overall. But when comparing his numbers to another saavy veteran returner on the Bengals, Danieal Manning, Tate has fumbled the ball five times on kickoffs during his time with the Bengals and Manning has fumbled only twice during his career. It should also be noted that though Tate only fumbled once last year there were only three returners who fumbled more than Tate, so his ball security may be a bit overstated by the Bengals. If the argument for Tate, within today’s deemphasized return game, is that he’s reliable and intelligent, then it seems a similar and possibly better argument can be made for Manning.
Tate also has produced zero TDs on kick returns since joining the Bengals. This reality doesn’t exactly strike fear in opposing teams nor does it get me off my seat during games. Tate undoubtedly has speed, but he does seem to be a “long strider” and doesn’t possess elite agility and shiftyness. In this way I would argue that there are options at returner for the Bengals, such and Onterio McCalebb, who may intimidate opposing teams more so l when it comes to these few potentially game-changing moments. I’d also argue that though receiving a kickoff and retaining possession throughout the play isn’t the easiest thing to do, most NFL caliber returners would easily possess these qualities if he could even be considered for the position (or he could simply take the touchback as kickoffs are received in the endzone more frequently today; it’s not exactly much of a complement that the Bengals gave Tate here. With all this being considered it simply doesn’t seem as if Tate’s abilities are irreplaceable on a team that is loaded with talented and motivated players.
Some of these points could be muted if Tate possessed talents elsewhere, but history simply isn’t on Tate’s side. With reference to punt returning, Tate has been average at best. Last year he finished in the bottom third of average return yards and with a stellar defense, Tate didn’t lack opportunities finishing near the top in total returns. Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons has expressed, on a few occasions, an excitement for Adam Jones to get more opportunities on punt returns in the coming year. If anything this could only highlight that the team’s production on punts could be improved; this is most certainly an indictment against Tate. With regards to Tate’s perpetual strong showings at wide receiver during camps, I can only wonder then why he has never made it onto the field. Tate has had a few opportunities to make an impact as a receiver during his career and simply hasn’t been able to do so. After being drafted in the third round by the New England Patriots in 2009 he was unable to get onto the field much during his rookie season after losing potential playing time to seventh round pick Julian Edelman. In 2010, after Randy Moss was traded away from the team, Tate enjoyed his most productive year with 24 receptions for 432 yards and 3 TDs, but continued to be kept at bay by second and fourth round picks Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Tate was released prior to the 2011 season and was promptly claimed by the Bengals. The Bengals lacked a strong receiving core upon his arrival, but Tate was still unable to beat out Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell for playing time. The Bengals then drafted both Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones in 2012 and Tate was permanently pushed aside. The argument could be made that Tate has been a victim of circumstance, but it seems more likely that Tate simply hasn’t been able to prove himself more than a backup receiver.
In recent years the Bengals have done an excellent job of assembling a young and talented team. It’s roster is full of players seeking opportunities to get on the field and showcase their abilities and then leveraging those abilities into larger roles in the future a la Vincent Rey and his assumed increased role on the defense this year. When considering the overwhelming amount of talent the Bengals have acquired every roster spot will count. They will also need to consider the fact that several of the players they cut will end up on an opposing team’s roster. The Bengals have experienced this in recent years in the forms of Daniel Herron, Reid Fragel, Shaun Prater, John Connor, and Dontay Moch. This year will only be worse as the depth of this team has gotten substantially better and several “roster bubble” players will be deserving of a spot but left without room. Giving away talent can come back to haunt a team so retaining as much of it as possible is important and sometimes this means moving on from veterans who have reached their climax and keeping younger players have yet to realize their potential. The Bengals aren’t known for moving on from veterans they trust but this may be the year they must to come to terms with that notion if they are to retain their depth as some of these younger players will seek lucrative deals in the coming years.
To be fair, if Tate showcases substantial inmprivement in the receiving game and proves he should be a valuable commodity on offense, then much of this is a moot point. But the evidence is stacked against him as he has failed to assert himself in this role on a few occasions. Equally against him is the declining importance of the kick return game. At this point it seems a solid punt returner is a more valuable commodity to the Bengals especially when considering they possess an elite defense. Roster cuts this year may be the most difficult the Bengals have yet to face and their camp may prove to be the most competitive in the league. There simply isn’t room any longer for a player who functions exclusively as a kick return specialist and offers little elsewhere.