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Bengals Roster Battles Begin As Spring Ends; Taylor, Pooka In Classic Vet-Rookie Matchup  at WR/PR

Trent Taylor's experience has "leg up," on punt return job.
Trent Taylor's experience has "leg up," on punt return job.

Darrin Simmons, the Bengals' long-time special teams coordinator, jokingly puts 13-year punter Kevin Huber's age at 50. Head coach Zac Taylor kiddingly puts Simmons seasons with the Bengals at 45.

But all laughs aside, everyone has been around long enough to know there are certain truths with spring ball now done and six weeks left until training camp.

Here are two of them:

- When a young talent like Ohio State rookie punter Dru Chrisman catches Simmons' "very impressed," eye during the 10 practices in May and June, Chrisman is a guy to track even though Simmons "is very comfortable" with the thought of Huber punting in his 13th opener against Mike Zimmer's Vikings.

"We'll get a good view of that in training camp," Simmons said in the Bengals final media Zoom before the July 27 start of camp. "Competition brings out the best. I will tell you that I was very impressed. Drue did a good punting in the limited number of days we've had here."

- When Bengals president Mike Brown convened his coaches and player personnel staff for Wednesday's annual last-day-of spring roster outlook, no doubt they had Simmons' mantra in mind.

"Everybody wants to talk about the 53-man roster and that's great," Simmons said. "But the most important roster to me is the 46-man roster on game day. Who are the two back-up safeties? Not necessarily the fifth safety, but who are the two back-up safeties? Who are the fourth and fifth corners? Who are the fourth and fifth linebackers?

"When you're building the bottom of the roster, those are the guys who are four–phase starters and they better be big-time contributors on special teams and that's what winning teams do."

OK, so who are they 41 days before the veterans report to Paul Brown Stadium?

Start at wide receiver, where Simmons' biggest hole at punt returner may most likely be filled with veteran Trent Taylor or rookie Pooka Williams Jr., backing up Tyler Boyd in the slot. Hard to see both making it because they seem to be competing for the same game day spot in what is shaping up as a classic veteran-rookie matchup.

The first four wide receivers figure to be Boyd, Tee Higgins, Ja'Marr Chase and Auden Tate. It's tough to keep six receivers active on game day, so that fifth receiver who dresses could be Taylor, who comes with 49 career returns from the 49ers and has what Simmons calls "a leg up" on the return job.

"Just because he's done it before in the league," Simmons said. "He's somebody that I trust catching the ball in this short period of time. I worked him out down at Louisiana Tech when he came out, so I had a pretty good feel for him when he came out and watched him over the course of his four years in the league."

But Simmons, born in Elkhart, Kan., and a punter at the University of Kansas in the mid-'90s, also calls the job, "About as wide open as the Kansas prairie is right now." Which is where he found Williams, a 5-9, 170-pound undrafted record-breaking running back. Area scout Christian Sarkisian did the heavy lifting when he recruited Williams, but it was Simmons who sent him back there to catch punts for the first time in his life during his pro day workout in Lawrence. When he showed up in Cincinnati, the coaches decided to try him at receiver.

"It's not out of the question he'll get some carries, but he's real slight," said offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. "What he would look like in pads might be different than the heavy metal music they play here. He's got skills. He's quick, has good hands. A niche guy. He could return, he could play in the slot. We can use him in jet motion. He could do a lot of things that are intriguing."

Maybe he could take two game day spots as the sixth wide receiver and fourth running back. But first he'd have to win the punt return job.

"He's getting there. He's not there by any stretch of the imagination yet. But he's well on his way," Simmons said. "He's made great improvement … Catching punts, you've got two gunners breathing right down your neck and you've got to make a decision to catch it or not catch it or signal a fair catch. There's more that goes into it than just catching the ball. But I do think he's made great strides compared to what it was that day in Lawrence.

"Not that it was poor that day in Lawrence. There's just certain things that guys do where you can tell they're very inexperienced. They chase the ball all over the place. He's starting to get himself to a point where he can run to a spot and wait on the ball. That's what you're looking for, when they can get there and run to a spot and wait on the ball and give themselves more time to make a good decision that goes into all the rest of that play."

Speaking of gunners, wide receivers Mike Thomas and Stanley Morgan, Jr., are solid there and Thomas knows the offense backwards and forwards. You figure one of those guys also has to be active game day, so they just may have to dress six receivers for special teams purposes.

So what's that mean for, say, tight end and running back? Just three tight ends and three running backs dress for games?

Most likely so. Keep an eye on the kicking game joust between Mason Schreck and Mitchell Wilcox for the third tight end spot behind C.J. Uzomah and Drew Sample on Sunday. That's why they play the preseason. To see which back backs up Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. Chris Evans? Trayveon Williams? Jacques Patrick? Yes, it will be nice if that guy has a few 60-yard games in August, but he better get downfield on teams if he wants to be on the 46.

"One of my big messages to those guys all the time (is) we need to be good friends starting in June all the way through," Simmons said. "Don't try to be my friend starting after the second preseason game, it's too late. You start to realize what it takes to make our team and they start to see their chances start dwindling and falling away. Now all of a sudden it becomes important to them again to have a role in the kicking game."

The defense would seem to be a little more settled for special teams. With three backups likely behind starters Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt, Jordan Evans is one of Simmons' leaders and Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey are second-year players that impressed Simmons in the kicking game as rookies. A first-year player like Keandre Jones or an undrafted rookie like Darius Hodge is going to have to grind.

 "I joked Jordan Evans sits up there in the front of the room in all those meetings and he's seen the solid protection meeting on punt probably about 15 times," Simmons said. "It's not like he needs that. But the guy sitting in the back row sitting in that meeting for the first time certainly needs it. There are varying levels of knowledge and understanding in the room."

Those backup safeties? That looks to be set with his best player, ace gunner and NFL kick return title contender Brandon Wilson. The Bengals signed former Falcons captain Ricardo Allen to replace Shawn Williams as the third safety. Williams was one of Simmons' leaders, but Allen has played only 17 teams snaps the past three seasons. But he did play a lot as a rookie in 2015 and figures to lend the same kind of experience.

When it comes to the fourth and fifth cornerbacks, certainly Darius Phillips figures to be fourth behind Trae Waynes, Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton. Phillips had a spectacular return career at Western Michigan, but injuries and balky hands have derailed that path in the NFL so far. Although Simmons didn't put him back there to catch punts with Taylor and Williams this spring because he's recovering from shoulder surgery, he says he's got a chance to win the job.

"I forgot to mention him when we talked about the punt return job and that's my fault," Simmons said. "But he didn't practice and I hate to say it, but it is kind of out of sight out of mind. It's not that way. He'll figure right in the mix in that punt return job, too. He's certainly someone who has game-breaking abilities, too. I apologize for that. He does figure into that, too."

Veteran Eli Apple would appear to lead the competition for the fifth cornerback spot, which guarantees dressing on Sunday. But he also hasn't really played on teams since his rookie year and has been on 19 kicking game plays in the last two years.

But that's why they play the preseasons games. To not only find out who can play, but to also get them ready to play. And playing special teams is a big path to making Sunday's roster of 46,

"Everybody has a role and they understand what the role is. It's part of the 46-man roster, not the 53, but the 46-man roster," Simmons said. "I would like to think what they do for me on fourth down makes a big difference on ultimately who we keep."