There shouldn’t be a ton of turnover on special teams, but with the Bengals, nothing is a certainty. The camp battles are at least worth monitoring.
We’ve finished up the roster projections for offense and defense, which leaves just special teams. The competition for kicker, punter, and long snapper isn’t as fierce as it is at other positions. Therefore, we will just combine the special teams into one roster projection. The Bengals shouldn’t have too many tough decisions to make, but the special teams is worth keeping an eye on.
At kicker, there will at least be a competition, though it may not be very stiff. Incumbent kicker Randy Bullock is the heavy favorite to remain the starter. The Bengals signed Bullock in 2016 after cutting Mike Nugent, then retained him for 2017. Though Bullock was not spectacular last season, he was surprisingly effective. If he performs well in camp, he should have the job on lock.
The Bengals have kept Jon Brown around, though, and it’s clear they like him at least a little. Brown was on the Bengals’ taxi squad last year, which is strange for a kicker. Brown, a UDFA from Louisville, has a two-year minimum deal with the Bengals (non-guaranteed). He should have a fair shot at the roster, but he will have to definitively outperform Bullock in camp. Brown will be around this summer, but don’t expect him to make the roster.
At punter, there are zero question marks. Kevin Huber has been on the Bengals for 9 years now, and there is no doubt he will be around for a 10th. To this point in his career, Huber is likely the best punter in franchise history. The Bengals have not even brought anyone else in to compete for the starting job. As long as he’s healthy, Huber will be the starting punter this year.
The same goes for long snapper Clark Harris. Harris is one of the longest tenured Bengals, and this year should not change that title. He’s been a pillar of consistency at long snapper, going years on end without botching a snap. Like Huber, the Bengals have not brought in anyone else to compete with Harris. If he’s healthy, he’s the starting long snapper.
The only major competition on special teams is at kick and punt returner. As I wrote earlier, there is a wide open competition for the job. The incumbent is Alex Erickson, who has been serviceable in the role. However, Erickson lacks the dynamism that some of the rookies bring. Both Jessie Bates II and Darius Phillips have the open field elusiveness and quickness to be a serious threat as a returner. Also, both Bates and Phillips are locks to make the roster. Erickson and long shot Brandon Wilson – who will also get consideration as a returner – may need to win the job to stay on the roster.
If I had to pick one, I would bet on Darius Phillips winning the returner job. Phillips was a touchdown machine at Western Michigan, and he can bring that skill to the Bengals. However, as I mentioned in the safety projections, I do think Wilson will get a shot to make the team, possibly as a returner.
If Phillips wins the job, that means there are no surprises on the final special teams roster: Randy Bullock, Kevin Huber, Clark Harris, and Darius Phillips. As long as Bullock can kick like he did in 2017, this is a solid and reliable unit, with the added upside of Phillips returning kicks and punts.