The Bengals Have an Open Competition for Returner

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 02: Darius Phillips
ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 02: Darius Phillips /

With the influx of talent from the draft, the Cincinnati Bengals have a lot of options for their kick and punt returner. Can anyone unseat Alex Erickson?

Now that the Cincinnati Bengals have cut Adam Jones, the team must find a special teams playmaker. For years, Jones was to go-to kick and punt returner whenever the Bengals needed something to happen. Even when Brandon Tate was still in Cincinnati, Jones would take select kicks and punts to try to score quickly. Unfortunately, since Jones’ age has sapped away his open field elusiveness, the Bengals have to find his replacement this year.

Last year’s primary returner, Alex Erickson, presumably has an early lead going into camp. Erickson has been on the roster for two years, returning kicks and punts each season. He has been useful to the Bengals as the primary special teams guy since he gets solid return yardage. He also doesn’t fumble the ball. For his career, Erickson has 1,473 kick return yards and 473 punt return yards (24.1 and 7.1 yards per return).

These numbers get the job done, but Erickson has yet to make a splash on special teams. Much like Tate, Erickson is a reliable returner but doesn’t change the game returning kicks and punts. In his two years as a Bengal, he has yet to score a special teams touchdown. There was a reason Tate yielded special teams work to Jones: Jones was merely a more dynamic athlete than Tate. Similarly, Erickson may have to give up some or all of his special teams works to another player if he isn’t more dynamic than them. The Bengals should give Erickson the first crack at the job, but it is by no means secure.

The most prominent challengers for special teams duty are likely the rookies. No other veterans on this roster can challenge Erickson for the return job. Wide receiver John Ross may have the potential to do it, but his health is a significant factor. The Bengals likely want to keep him healthy to have an impact at receiver, so Ross will probably not be returning kicks and punts. Ross did record a kick return touchdown every season he played at Washington, though, so the Bengals theoretically could use him in specialty situations. Rather, Erickson’s biggest competition should be from rookies Jessie Bates and Darius Phillips.

Bates, like Ross, is someone I don’t necessarily expect to get the return job because of the Bengals’ need to keep him healthy for defensive plays. However, Bates had a knack for returning kicks and punts (especially punts) at the college level. As a I profiled in his film review, he has enough open field athleticism to make guys miss on returns. Bates’ fluid movements also make for excellent, smooth cuts without losing any downhill speed. He also has incredible field awareness as a free safety, so he can see the best routes to take to go for a score. Bates may not win the starting return job, but he certainly has the chops to be the Bengals’ guy.

Phillips, on the other hand, is a player I expect to get serious consideration as the returner. A fifth-round cornerback, Phillips won’t get a lot of playing time on defense. What Phillips does bring, though, is a nose for the end zone. A converted wide receiver, Phillips notched five defensive touchdowns in just three seasons at Western Michigan. Furthermore, he was the lead returner for WMU and hit paydirt six more times as a returner.

Next: Bengals must get better in the red zone

On punt returns, he averaged three more yards per return than Erickson has as a Bengals. That’s a considerable difference when comparing the two players. Phillips’ raw speed combined with his knack for scoring makes him a viable threat to unseat Erickson.