Updated: Aug. 30, 7:05 a.m.
If you want to have any idea how the Bengals 53-man Opening Day roster is going to look, you have to talk to Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons. But with just three practices (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday) and one game (Thursday night against the Colts) left in the preseason, even he says he has to wait to see "how it shakes out."
His mantra is simple: "The more you can do for the team to help the team win, the more valuable they become; the more weight that should carry."
Simmons, the only special teams coach Marvin Lewis has had in his seven seasons, said Saturday the depth heading into the Sept. 5 cut is the deepest he's seen.
"There's going to be some really good players on the street that we're not going to be able to keep," Simmons said. "I wish we could keep them all. It's a good problem to have. That part of it's been better than it's been in the past. They're better players, they have more experience, they're just better all-around players."
Just look at the safety spot, where everyone seems to be on the bubble. Especially if the Bengals keep just nine players with five cornerbacks and four safeties and the safeties that have already made it figure to be Chris Crocker, Roy Williams and Chinedum Ndukwe.
That leaves Kyries Hebert, last year's leading special teams tackler, as well as a former fourth-round pick in Marvin White, a sixth-rounder in Corey Lynch, and a versatile rookie free agent in Tom Nelson.
Hebert hasn't covered much this preseason simply because Simmons knows what he can do. And it's a lot.
"I know he's going to bring it every play," Simmons said. "He's a guy you can count on. A guy that's helped us win games and helped us in the kicking game. He brings a certain level of toughness and physicalness to our group that's hard to bring sometimes. You have to have guys that stand out by the way that they play. Not only the plays they make but the way that they play and how seriously he takes his job and he's one of those guys."
But Hebert doesn't play much from scrimmage and the club has to weigh his value on special teams with the value of guys like Lynch, White and Nelson. Lynch is intriguing, simply because a special teams play made him a national figure when he blocked a last-second field goal against Michigan as a senior at Appalachian State in 2007. When he arrived via the sixth round in '08, he showed an ability to play the ball in the secondary before he suffered a season-ending knee injury just before the halfway point.
Lynch struggled in the first two preseason games, but not Thursday night against the Rams. He made a big play covering a punt that didn't have good hang time and he nearly blocked a punt.
"Corey played more physical; he played more aggressive," Simmons said. "I think he heard (what had) been said. He needs to be more aggressive. He'd been playing tentative and I thought he did better with that."
There are just some things that can't be taught when it comes to blocking kicks, which Lynch did in his first game as a pro last year in the preseason opener in Green Bay.
"Corey has unbelievable timing," Simmons said. "It's a knack. He has an unbelievable knack for timing and get-off. Realistically, that could have been holding on their slot (on the near block). He has the fastest takeoff of anyone I've ever been around and ever coached. He does it by study. He watches the snapper. He picked up a couple of things the guy does with his hands before he snaps it. That's what the good ones do. They find every tip they can get."
White has made a Herculean recovery from an ACL injury. Remember back in November when he played three-and-a-half quarters with his knee torn up? He was back on the first day of training camp. But so was Nelson, an undrafted rookie from Illinois State who has had a huge preseason.
Ten days ago against New England, Nelson had a sack and preserved the 7-6 win by forcing a fumble recovered by White at the Bengals 12 with less than four minutes left. On Thursday night against the Rams he returned a punt 44 yards. But on Saturday, Simmons was thinking about a punt Nelson covered against the Pats on their last punt of the game.
"He drew a holding call," Simmons said. "Think back to where that game ended. The quarterback ran to our 40. That could have been the 30 and they could have had a chance for (a field goal)."
Also Thursday, rookie free agent wide receiver Quan Cosby returned a punt for a touchdown and the Bengals need a returner. Everyone thinks that spot is coming down between Cosby and Nelson. The incumbent, wide receiver Antonio Chatman, said Saturday he thinks he'll be able to play Thursday with an ankle injury that has kept him out of all the preseason games.
But will one game be enough?
Simmons wants to use that last game to see Cosby and Nelson as cover players as much as punt returners. He says Nelson has an edge there, but he wants to see Cosby do more of it, too.
"The more you can do," and this is where the other positions come into play at the safety spot. If Cosby makes it at receiver, why keep Nelson? But if Nelson plays multiple spots (nickel corner, safety) and can help the team more than the 5-9 Cosby from scrimmage, doesn't he make it? How do two of the trio of Cosby, Chatman and Nelson make it?
But what about wide receiver Maurice Purify? Asked to name his most impressive top punt tacklers (gunners), Simmons mentioned the physical 6-3, 226-pound Purify first. He points back to the opener in which Purify was held on a kick and still made the tackle.
Simmons has been looking for a guy like Purify since Kevin Walter left via free agency: The No. 5 receiver that can cover and block on all four special teams. The top four receivers are Chad Ochocinco, Laveranues Coles, Andre Caldwell and Chris Henry. Jerome Simpson probably makes it but is going to have a hard time being active on game days. The fifth receiver figures to be Purify or Cosby, a guy that has to contribute on special teams.
And if the Bengals decide to keep three tight ends and two fullbacks, that may mean they don't get to keep the 10th DB. So is it Cosby vs. Nelson or Nelson vs. rookie fullback Fui Vakapuna?
There are also guys who figure to make the roster that also have excelled on special teams. Rookie running back Bernard Scott has returned some kicks, but the one time Simmons had him cover a punt in New England, he responded. Rookie cornerback Morgan Trent played well in the first two games, but really opened some eyes with a big tackle on the sidelines against the Rams.
"It was good to see that," Simmons said. "He ran down the field and ran through somebody."
Of course, Simmons always doesn't get his man. Backup linebacker Jim Maxwell had a fine preseason for him last year and got cut. He's having another good one. Maxwell is one of the guys Simmons covets because he's reliable and consistent, but it is always numbers.
Simmons would love to keep seven linebackers and dress them all on Sundays. But that probably means the Bengals only keep eight defensive linemen. As Simmons says, "We'll see how it shakes out," and it's why a guy like defensive end Frostee Rucker has to be grinding. He plays well when healthy, but he's only been healthy enough to play in just one game while backers like Maxwell and Darryl Blackstock have played well on special teams.
"We'll see," Simmons could only say again, "how it shakes out."