Bengals face questions on special teams

FILE - Cincinnati Bengals punter Kevin Huber (10) punts in the first half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Cleveland. Huber has been a Bengals fan all his life. He grew up in Cincinnati, went to college there and rooted for the city to celebrate a championship. The 36-year-old Bengals punter is the team’s longest-tenured player and he’s a victory away from helping deliver a Super Bowl title to his city - and fulfilling a dream that started as a young fan in the stands at Riverfront Stadium. (AP Photo/Nick Cammett, File)

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FILE - Cincinnati Bengals punter Kevin Huber (10) punts in the first half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Cleveland. Huber has been a Bengals fan all his life. He grew up in Cincinnati, went to college there and rooted for the city to celebrate a championship. The 36-year-old Bengals punter is the team’s longest-tenured player and he’s a victory away from helping deliver a Super Bowl title to his city - and fulfilling a dream that started as a young fan in the stands at Riverfront Stadium. (AP Photo/Nick Cammett, File)

CINCINNATI -- Special teams is one of the few question marks the Cincinnati Bengals still have to solve, but those will be answered beginning with Organized Team Activities and through training camp.

Of the most visible roles on special teams, the Bengals are only set at kicker with Evan McPherson coming off a stellar rookie season. They will have a true punting competition for the first time since they drafted Kevin Huber in 2009, and return duties remain uncertain after some rotation became necessary last season.

Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons sees some potential help coming from this year’s draft class, even if just in the other support roles that need filled.

“I think we’ve got several guys that can help us,” he said Tuesday, There are several guys that got some experience doing it in college. Dax (Hill) had done some stuff in college. He had been a productive player early in his career and I think that’s kinda the story with a lot of these guys. A lot of these guys have played extensively early in their career. The same can be said with Cam Taylor-Britt. It’s virtually all these guys have done some form or fashion of it.”

As for the punt returner role, Simmons isn’t sure if any of the draft picks “fit the bill” yet but Trent Taylor remains an option after assuming those duties last year, and Pooka Williams also could be in the mix again. Undrafted college free agent signee Kwamie Lassiter, who played at Kansas, also has returned punts before, and of the draft picks Tycen Anderson had experience in that role, among various others.

Perhaps more intriguing, though, is the punter job up for grabs.

Cincinnati announced Huber’s return for a 14th season earlier this week, and he will try to keep his job through a competition with Drue Chrisman, who was on and off the practice squad all last season with clear intent to keep him around for a true shot in 2022. Chrisman signed with the Bengals as a college free agent last year, but was hurt before training camp and didn’t get a chance to compete for the job.

Huber struggled with consistency last year but believes he still has a few more years left in him, and he needs one more game to hold the franchise’s record for all-time games played. He is tied with cornerback Ken Riley at 207 career games.

“I think the offer had been out there for some time,” Simmons said on the decision to re-sign Huber. “I think you’d have to speak to Kevin more about it, but I think he wanted to wait and see how the draft played out for us before he made a determination about what he wanted to do. And obviously we didn’t do anything in the draft and didn’t acquire anybody that way so it makes it an easier path to come back.”

Simmons said the punting battle between Huber and Chrisman will look a lot like a normal kicking competition. The two players will have to split equal reps with different snappers, and the holding part on field goals, which Huber has done, also is a factor.

Huber already has a routine with McPherson and long snapper Clark Harris.

“I used to think a punter’s job, 60% of it was punting and probably 40% was holding,” Simmons said. “I think with the advent of more analytics stuff that we rely on now, obviously, having the personnel we have on offense, we go for it more on fourth down more than we have ever in my time here. So now I think some of that has probably shifted. The punting and the holding part has probably shifted. Obviously having a weapon that we have in Evan and being able to back our field goal attempts up a bit, certainly opens the field up for those guys offensively too. And so now I think it’s probably like 55-45 or probably close to 50-50 punting and holding.”

Chrisman served as a holder at Ohio State, but Simmons said Huber has a “leg up on that” because he’s done it for much longer. He noted Chrisman is aware that is a deficiency he needs to work on to earn a job.

Cincinnati would not consider having a player at another position serve in that role if Chrisman struggles but proves to be the better punter.

“I never see that happening because how do you practice? How does the kicker ever practice?” Simmons said. “So much of the success of a kicker is the relationships and the timing that they develop with the snapper and the holder and the trust they develop. That was old school stuff that they used to do way back—the guy with the best hands would do it. That’s why a lot of times you see the backup quarterback would often do it. But now I don’t think that would ever happen. It certainly wouldn’t happen here.”

Equity that Huber built up over the last 13 years helps in that there is a level of trust Simmons has in him, but he still needs to see that Huber can physically go out and do the things to be a competent punter in this league. That likely won’t be determined until August and September.

The Bengals brought back Chrisman for a reason, too, though.

“I think he’s a guy’s that has some ability,” Simmons said. “He proved that when I did see him a year ago. He proved that. He had a nice career at Ohio State. There’s obviously things that he’s working hard, that we really try to try to make a big emphasis to him. These are the things that you need to do to put yourself in position to compete for this spot. And he’s a smart guy, and I think he’s working hard to try to do those things. So yeah, I think he has ability. And now it’s up to him to put it out there and show it.”

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