Bengals’ 2014 Camp Battles
Special Teams and Some Final Thoughts
McCalebb will also be contributing to the next training camp situation. Brandon Tate has been the long-time return specialist for the Bengals. He’s performed consistently in the role, but opposing teams don’t necessarily fear his ability. He finished eighth in the league in kick return average amongst players with at least 20 returns. He produced his best average as a member of the Bengals with 26.1 yards/return. He finished 17th in the league in punt return average amongst players with at least 15 returns. He produced a 9.3 yards/return average. Despite these quality numbers, he doesn’t break many of these returns for touchdowns. He’s only had one return for a touchdown as a Bengal; it was on a punt in 2011. The big indictment against him is his lack of versatility. This leaves his spot vulnerable, but he still has support from coach Darrin Simmons still. Onterio McCalebb gained experience as a kick returner in college and could solidify his spot on the team if he can at least equal the performance of Tate. Also working against Tate is a potential contribution from Adam Jones as a punt returner. Once drafting Darqueze Dennard this year, the Bengals effectively took some of the load off Jones at corner. This will allow Jones more time and energy to contribute in this role, and the defense won’t have to worry as much about his preservation. The Bengals also have a potential returner in Giovani Bernard, and considering they’ll be using several backs on offense, he could get a couple of looks here. The Bengals possess tons of talent and love versatility, so holding onto a pure returner once more may not be an option any longer.
Darrin Simmons recently commented about a kicking duel between Mike Nugent and Quinn Sharp. Nugent has been a solid kicker across his career, but has had down years the past couple. He’s also been known to get hurt. He only played nine games in 2010 and then missed the entire 2011 season. He then missed four games and the playoffs in 2012. Nugent finished 20th and 23rd in the NFL in kicking accuracy in 2012 and 2013 respectively. He was 16th in the league regarding kickoff average and 20th in touchbacks in spite of having the tenth most attempts in the league. His below average performance as both a place and kickoff kicker have put his job in jeopardy. Quinn Sharp comes to camp as both an accomplished kicker and punter, though it should be noted, his specialty is punting. He earned All-American honors in his last three years and was the first Big 12 All-Conference kicker and punter in 2011. He would’ve set a NCAA career record for punting average, but didn’t have enough attempts to qualify. Accolades aside, his value is slightly boosted as he can perform both duties adequately, though he won’t win the punter job over Ken Huber. Sharp shouldn’t have an issue being the better of the two on the kickoff due to his leg strength. He finished his college career having converting 84.7% of his FG attempts. That betters the career average of Nugent at 81.2%. He has the ability, but will need to consistently outperform Nugent when place kicking to win the job.
Some Final Observations
When looking at the camp situation as a whole, there are a couple of other factors to keep in mind.
Although vexing to many fans, when considering some of the veterans in their position battles, money will count. The ability to roll cap over from this year to next will be a factor on how much assurance the team will have in keeping its pool of talented youth. This is when many disgruntled fans’ feelings rear their head; a product of Mike Brown’s past transgressions. But consider this, Jermaine Gresham’s contract runs out after this year. Assuming the Bengals have room for Burfict, Green, and Dalton, he may be the most significant upcoming FA. He has performed well at times, but his mental mistakes will inevitably effect a potential pay raise. His current cap hit is eleventh amongst tight ends and is behind all quality players. He will make 4.832 million this year. Considering all of this, he probably isn’t in for a big pay raise. If the team cuts Robert Geathers and rolls his 2.7 million cap space over to next year and then applies all of it to Gresham, he gets paid over 7.5 million. This would be a huge raise and would make him the fourth highest paid TE in the league. I’m not advocating for this, but rather showing what could be accomplished when having this extra cap space rolled over. Raises can be potentially given to several players with this rolled over money. The contracts of Geathers, Cedric Peerman, and Brandon Tate add up to 4.674 million. If Peerman is replaced with Green-Ellis, then the total becomes 6.124 million, or just shy of the current cap hit of Andrew Whitworth. Much can be done with this type of cap rollover, so it must be considered in the decision-making.
The other factor to think about is how the team will account for the third QB roster spot. The Bengals have carried two quarterbacks in recent years, so they must account for the QB at some other position. Hue Jackson has a preference for fullbacks, but sacrificing the essential fifth running back could be a reality if players like Jeremy Hill, Orson Charles, and Domata Peko can provide quality lead blocking. Another position to consider is WR. The team possesses two very good TEs in Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert. Eifert can split outside as a wide receiver and the team will be looking to utilize him more this year after sporadic use in 2013. Along with them, Orson Charles has been awaiting a chance to produce and was always considered a good receiving TE. The Bengals will be moving towards a run-heavy system. These factors could mean the Bengals don’t need more than five total wide receivers. On defense, the team will assumedly carry nine total linemen and five safeties. A case can be made to decrease either position by one. If it’s the defensive linemen, then Geathers, Moch, and Montgomery will all be cut. This is doable as Jayson DiManche was always a lineman prior to his NFL transition to LB. He could find his way onto the field more often in a DE role sporadically. The secondary could lose one player, assumedly Taylor Mays, and do fine. Mays primarily played the nickel LB role last year anyway and won’t need to this year unless heavy injury strikes the LB core once again, highly unlikely.
The team has some tough choices ahead. It begs the question of when the team may consider trading a player for future picks to open up a roster spot for all this talent; there are plenty of quality players who could fit the bill. Until then the team will continue to have some incredibly competitive camp battles. It’s a good problem to have.