We've heard from the gurus and the jesters about the endless depth of the Bengals. Vegas and Bristol have weighed in on Cincinnati's improved odds in the AFC North. The pundits and prosecutors have pretty much praised a roster that spans everything from a rookie free-agent lark (Onterio McCalebb) to a Super Bowl hero (James Harrison).
But the best view of this depth chart may very well belong to Darrin Simmons, who has coached every snap of the Bengals special teams in the Marvin Lewis era. After seeing this group on the field in the first two weeks of OTAs, the man that has lined up both Hawkins brothers (Artrell and Andrew) on the punt team and every returner from Brandon Bennett to Brandon Tate, from Bernard Scott to Giovani Bernard, pronounces the Bengals as fast as they've ever been and "more athletic. I'm sure of that."
"(Team speed) is up there. It's as high as it's ever been; maybe ever," Simmons says. "We had a couple of fast groups from '04-'06. We had some fast guys then. I think our team speed was fast then. I think we're (more) experienced, so we're even in a better place now."
There are two rookies currently working for Simmons that give the Bengals an added "Sheen" of athleticism and speed on special teams as they defend their 2012 NFL championship in the combined top 10 special teams categories.
There is safety Shawn Williams, a third-rounder from Georgia, and outside linebacker Sean Porter, a fourth-rounder from Texas A&M.
While the defensive coaches are trying to figure out if the 6-0, 213-pound Williams can start, Simmons is already coveting him.
"He's as natural as an instinctive guy—as far as understanding football concepts—as I've seen come out in a long time; really natural," Simmons says.
He loves the way the 6-1, 237-pound Porter moves, giving the Bengals cover teams a taste of the speedy 3-4 backer medicine they've been getting from the Steelers and Ravens all these years.
"But he's got to bulk up. He's got to get bigger. He's got to be stronger," Simmons says. "He's going to find out the AFC North is a tough butt division."
Porter has already put on seven pounds since the NFL scouting combine, so he looks to be headed in the right direction.
"When you're drafting players that improve the bottom of your roster and don't have to play right away, then that's a good thing," Simmons says.
You can throw defensive end Margus Hunt on that list, too, another rookie that Simmons is anxious to activate on Sundays. And he hasn't even lined up his field goal block unit yet, an art the 6-8, 277-pount Hunt perfected at SMU with 17 career blocks. But Simmons has seen Hunt jet down the field on punt return.
"He's big, athletic and long. He's not just a kick-block guy. He can do other things," Simmons says. "How would you like to block that guy on the kickoff running 4.6 and he's 6-8? I wouldn't want to block him. He's a big son of a gun."
Simmons is also going to look at Hunt on kickoff and kick return, units which Simmons plans to deploy before the June 11-13 mandatory minicamp, and no doubt he'll be teaching Hunt things he's never heard as he continues his crash football course in front of a nationally televised audience.
"You see a guy that's played football for four years. But you also see a guy that has so many tools you can use," Simmons says. "The beauty of what we're doing right now is you can go out and see what these guys do the best and then you can start to mold and build things around them that they can do."
Leave it to Simmons to find beauty during a spring season that Bengals great Tim Krumrie famously ripped as "underwear football."
Not only is there no hitting, so Simmons is unable to judge the rookies' range and tackling skills, but he still hasn't trotted out one half of his four core units. He says the kickoff and kick return teams should take the field in the next week or two.
And yet Simmons and some of his specialists are always the last off the field. Whether it's working on wide receiver Andrew Hawkins's gunner release on punt cover, or backup quarterback Josh Johnson taking a stab at being the backup holder, or rookie free-agent cornerback Troy Stoudermire catching punts off the jug machines because he didn't get to return in practice, there is always something to do after most have left the field.
Simmons is a big stickler on individual technique. For instance, he says he worked on individual punt return technique Tuesday, and on Wednesday he'll line up punt return in half-line drills before moving to a full-fledged scheme.
"We keep building," Simmons says. "If you can hold up with individual techniques, that's going to make us better collectively."
What also makes the Bengals better is that young athleticism he's talking about that shows up in a couple of sophomores, outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur, a 6-4, 240-pound gazelle, and tight end Orson Charles, a 6-3, 250-pound big body that can run, as well special teams veterans Hawkins, backup safety Jeromy Miles, and backup running back Cedric Peerman.
The one major spot Simmons has to fill is the departure of de facto teams captain Dan Skuta, the backup linebacker that signed with the 49ers in the offseason after leading the Bengals in special teams tackles two of the past three seasons.
But Simmons also returns Miles as well as Peerman and backup linebacker Vincent Rey, guys that have combined for 57 special teams tackles over the past two seasons. Along with Lamur, they were among the club's top five special teams tacklers last season.
"There are always successors. That will play itself out. There's always going to be successors," Simmons says. "We've got guys right now who are assuming the leadership role that Skuta took on and we have enough of them. The Vinnys, the Ced Peermans. Those are guys that have to step up. (Safety) Taylor Mays, depending on his role. That has to be one. Hawk has natural leadership abilities.
"But when you're talking about an in-the-trenches guy like Skuta was, you're talking about Vinny and you're talking about Ced, you're talking about Jeromy."
And then you start talking about those guys battling the kids for roster spots.
"Happens every year," Simmons says. "See if the veterans can hold off the young guys."
Which takes him back down to improving the bottom of this 11th roster.