Even though the Bengals should see an influx of youth this season, expect to see much of the same at special teams for the 2018 season.
Special teams, though less important than offense or defense, has been a struggle for the Bengals in recent years. Aside from punter Kevin Huber, who has been nothing short of exemplary in Cincinnati, the Bengals haven’t found reliable contributors on special teams. The team’s kicking woes have been clearly enumerated in recent years, but the return game has been just as bad.
Looking to the 2018 season, there was a chance that the Bengals would turn to some fresh faces at those positions. However, it seems like the team is going to stick with the veterans for the time being. At punter, there is no contest. Kevin Huber will return to the team for his tenth season and look to break multiple franchise records this year.
At kicker, Randy Bullock is the incumbent, entering his third season as a Bengal. Bullock did not ingratiate himself well, missing a game-winning kick against Houston in his first game. However, he’s been fairly solid since then, and put together a respectable 2017 campaign. His main challenger is Jon Brown, a second year UDFA out of Louisville. Brown has actually been impressive through camp, including going 4/5 from 40+ yards so far. Though Brown is getting a fair crack at the roster, it doesn’t seem like he’ll beat out Bullock for the job.
At returner, there is a heavy focus on the veterans – much more than I thought there would be. Alex Erickson, the incumbent returner, has been getting the most touches, unsurprisingly. Although he has been a solid returner, he has done very little in the way of splash plays. He has yet to record a special teams touchdown for the Bengals. Along with Erickson, Giovani Bernard and John Ross are getting run at returner.
Though Bernard and Ross both profile as possible returners, their roles in the offense are large enough that it would be a risk to expose them to injury on returns. Especially with dynamic rookies on the roster, it is odd that the Bengals would prefer an entrenched veteran. Darius Phillips, a 5th round cornerback who I project to win the job, has gotten work as a returner, although he has already fumbled a punt. That is worrying for a guy who seems to be behind the veterans already.
Other young players who should get a shot at the return job are rookie Jessie Bates II and young safety Brandon Wilson. As of now, it doesn’t seem like either of them are getting work as returners. If what is happening now holds true throughout camp, it looks like the Bengals will go with a veteran player at returner as well. The special teams unit should see some improvement this season, but it will be with veteran faces, not young guns.