The Cincinnati Bengals consistently have great special teams play. Here, we look at how their draft strategy helps them maintain a strong third phase.
According to Football Outsiders, the Cincinnati Bengal’s finished the 2019 season with the best special teams unit in the entire NFL. In fact, the team has finished with a top ten unit six times since 2010, consistently proving they have the ability to be one of the best in that regard.
A lot of the success can be attributed to long time special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, who just received a contract extension and the title of assistant head coach.
The highly respected veteran has drawn praise from all over the league and often been rumored to be a candidate to lead his own team. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had this to say about the Kansas native,
"“Darrin is as good as any special teams coach in the league. They’re solid.”"
Simmons is indisputably one of the best at what he does. However, the front office’s draft strategy lends a hand to allow the unit to maintain it’s dominant play.
Typically special teams units consist of linebackers, defensive backs, wide receivers, and occasionally tight ends or running backs. When looking at the positions the Bengals target in the later rounds of the draft, it’s clear they have the third phase in mind.
In 2019 alone, the Bengals selected four players at the aforementioned positions from round six on. Since 2010, the Bengals have had 37 selections in round five or later. Of those picks, 25 of them have been spent on “special teams” positions. It’s clear that once the team reaches round five of the draft, they switch their mindset to ensuring they pick up players who help in kickoffs and the return game.
For comparison sake, the Chargers, who finished last in special teams rankings only spent four out of nine of their picks on players to help in the third phase from round five and beyond in the past three years. The Texans, who consistently rank among the bottom of special teams rankings, also often spend valuable selections on day three for players who can’t contribute on punt or kickoff teams.
It can be head-scratching at times to watch the front office spend so much draft capital through these rounds on positions they seemingly don’t have a need for, especially when there appears to be a glaring hole along the trenches. However, when looking at their strategy through this lens, it makes more sense.
Once a certain point in any given draft is reached, the chances of finding a prospect who will displace a starter already on the roster decrease significantly. If a player is unable to crack the starting lineup or become a reliable back-up, the likelihood of making the roster is slim.
However, if a player can turn into a special team ace, they can stick around. Duke Tobin and company have proven they are well equipped to find the sweet spot of when to shift their focus from finding players who have a shot at starting and when they should address the back end of the roster.
This draft strategy is part of the reason the Bengal’s have one of the highest rates of “homegrown” talent in the NFL. They select players they know can contribute in the third phase rather than taking a flier on a prospect who has no ability to contribute on special teams and a small chance of starting.
It’s also the reason Simmon’s unit is regularly apart of the upper-echelon in the NFL. Legendary coach George Allen once said the following,
"“Football is one-third offense, one-third defense, and one-third special teams.”"
Although often overlooked, special teams can play a huge role in the success of a team. If the Bengals can continue to perform in that regard, it could be a catalyst for them returning to contention and getting the other two-thirds of their game up to par.