The Bengals had 11 draft picks this year. Their first round selection, wide receiver John Ross, ran the fastest 40-yard dash in the history of the NFL Scouting Combine. Their second round pick, running back Joe Mixon, looks like he has Jeremy Hill's body with Giovani Bernard's feet. Both of them should be able to help the offense immediately.
But another rookie could wind up having the biggest impact on this year's team – fifth round selection Jake Elliott out of Memphis who was the first kicker selected in this year's draft. He'll go to training camp in a three-way battle for the job with veteran Randy Bullock and first-year kicker Jonathan Brown.
"I'm looking forward to competing," said Elliott. "Nothing in this league is given and everything has to be earned. I look forward to competing and hopefully winning the job."
Last year Mike Nugent missed six field goal attempts and six extra points. His replacement, Bullock, only missed one kick in three games but it was a 43-yard field goal try that would have beaten Houston at the gun on Christmas Eve.
With four extra picks in this year's draft, the Bengals were able to target a kicker and it was largely up to special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons to rank the college prospects.
"I like to think that it's a total team effort, but I think they rely a lot on my opinion," said Simmons. "I'm the one that gets to see each guy individually kick. I'm not a big pro day guy. I like to work them out individually because I like to do the things that I want to do with them and not necessarily have that on display for everyone else. I spend a lot of time with each of the top guys and I feel comfortable with the guy we got.
"I like to go in there individually so that I can work at my own pace. Sometimes I think on these pro days it's a rush for everybody. The scouts and coaches have flights to catch or whatever it may be, and this way it's a little more laid-back and I get a better feel. When you're making a decision like that you don't want to be rushed. I try to gather all the facts that I can."
Elliott obviously made a strong impression on Simmons, but the reverse was also true.
"I got to know Coach Simmons a little bit during the Senior Bowl and during the Combine," said Elliott. "Then he came up and worked me out individually in Memphis. He put me through a lot of stuff – field goal charts and kickoff charts and certain situational stuff as well. Then he coached a little technique stuff at the end and no other coach really did that."
"I think he's very coachable," said Simmons. "That was easy to see right away with a couple of adjustments that we tried to make right after the workout was over. When I made suggestions, he picked up on them right away.
"He has a very calm demeanor. It was a tough day in Memphis that day that I worked him out. The wind was probably blowing 15 to 20 miles per hour and he never flinched. Some specialists have a tendency to be, 'Woe is me,' because of the weather. We were supposed to start kicking around two o'clock and there was a torrential downpour. We just stayed inside and watched video for a little bit and went out when the weather was nice. He never flinched with any of that and it was good to see that he's got some composure."
As the radio broadcaster for UC, I saw Elliott kick in four games against the Bearcats and he made 5 of 7 field goal attempts and all 18 of his extra points. In his college career, Jake made 78% of his field goal tries at Memphis and all 202 of his extra point attempts.
"I take pride in that, but at the end of the day it's still a competition coming in here," he said. "I look forward to competing and hopefully earning a job."
Most rookies that make an NFL team, even some of the high draft picks, begin their careers as backups.
But not kickers. There's only one on the roster.
If Elliott wins the job, he'll be under a white-hot spotlight from day one.
"It's a lot different situation coming in as a specialist," Jake told me. "That's the pressure that comes with the job and that's why I love what I do."
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