Simmons said Phillips has looked as good as he’s seen him in the return role this preseason, as the new additions in the secondary might have fueled him to make his mark in other ways. His opportunities at the cornerback spot could be more limited if everyone is healthy, though it appears Cincinnati might be down one starter for a bit with Trae Waynes suffering a hamstring injury this week.
The Bengals are looking for a replacement for former return man Alex Erickson, who moved on in free agency.
“I think as you can imagine it’s different (now for Phillips),” Simmons said. “When Alex was here he probably didn’t feel like he had a great chance. I shouldn’t say that, it kind of got derailed last year. I had the full intention of pushing him to try to put him in that role. And then Trae Waynes got hurt right away. Darius had to become a starting corner on defense. I can’t put a starting corner out there. That got sidetracked and derailed so his focus and attention kind of goes elsewhere. Everybody assumed Alex was going to be the guy, and away we go. I don’t think it got his complete focus. Darius probably understands with the signings of bringing some of those guys on, Mike Hilton, Eli Apple, Darius starts 1, 2, 3, 4, uh oh. I better really lock in here, this could be my role because everyone sees a void there in that returner role. He has taken it more serious, with more professionalism knowing this may be the deal that keeps him here.”
The Bengals also will be looking at the gunners Sunday, with players like Mike Thomas, Stanley Morgan, Brandon Wilson, Winston Rose, Tony Brown and Jalen Davis all in consideration.
Thomas played the gunner role some toward the end of last year and hasn’t gotten much opportunity there this preseason while Simmons has tried to pay attention to when he’s getting time on offense. Simmons said he will get in early Sunday.
“I’ve been very pleased with our gunners so far,” Simmons said. “Brandon’s done a solid job. Stanley Morgan always does a solid job, too. We’ve had several guys force fair catches vs. single. Not when they were doubled, when they were singled up, which also is important. Forcing a fair catch or forcing a returner to signal for a fair catch because the gunner got in his face, to me, is a lot like a tackle. It’s virtually the same as a tackle to me. We had several guys that showed up and did that. Jalen Davis was one of those guys. Winston Rose got a chance a little bit the first week and made a couple of tackles on kickoff. So we’ve had a variety of guys that have shown up there. Tony Brown is somebody who played a lot for us last year, too. I feel good where we’re at at gunner right now.”
Simmons still plans to rotate the kickers, and said that McPherson still hasn’t won that job even though he’s looked the stronger option this preseason. It seems less likely the team keeps a second kicker this year, and McPherson, who was a fifth-round pick out of Florida, has made long-distance kicks look easy so far.
“For a guy who I don’t even know if he’s 21 years old yet, he hasn’t really earned the opportunity to do much of anything yet,” Simmons said. “He’s earned the opportunity to lace his shoes up and put his jersey on and tighten his chin strap. That’s about all he’s earned in my eye. We’ll go through the same rotation. We’ll rotate those guys through and give them both opportunities to show. We have a unique situation. I think both guys deserve - really we have two fifth-round picks on our team at kicker - and both deserve to be kicking in the league. You guys will find out which one it is for us on Tuesday.”
Dolphins at Bengals, 4 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7