Can Alex Erickson build on his success as a kick returner to become a playmaker in the Bengals offense next season? If so, how good can he be going forward?
In a down year for the Cincinnati Bengals, one surprising bright spot was the emergence of wide receiver/kick returner Alex Erickson. Erickson was recently named as the second team kick returner on the Pro Football Focus All-Pro Team.
Erickson started the year fighting for a roster spot with the Bengals as an undrafted free agent. After securing a spot on the 53 man roster, Erickson was awarded return duties. Making the most of his opportunities, he finished the year ranked first in total return yards. In addition to returns, Erickson also saw limited work as a receiver, catching 6 passes for 71 yards.
While Erickson didn’t necessarily shine as a receiver, his kick return abilities proved that he is capable of providing a boost to the Bengals offense. After finding success as a rookie, the questions that need answering are: How can the Bengals leverage Erickson to get the most out of his talents, and how good can he be after that happens?
Erickson did the same thing in the NFL as he did in College: he walked on. Erickson initially joined the Badgers scout team after playing quarterback in high school. After working his way onto the team he played three years at the University of Wisconsin and got the majority of his playing time in 2014 and 2015 as a wide receiver. Playing primarily in the slot, Erickson caught 55 passes in 2014 and 77 passes in 2015 with three touchdowns each season. Erickson also returned 24 punts and two kicks for a total of 213 yards and a 7.3 yard average on punt returns.
When looking at players with a similar skill set as Erickson, there is reason to be optimistic. Many of the more electrifying kick return specialists in the past–with dimensions close to Erickson’s 6-0 195 pound frame–have progressed to become valuable members of their team’s receiving corps. In addition, when looking at their first year in the league, they put up numbers comparable to Erickson’s (71 receiving yards, 57 returns for 1,005 yards with a 7.0 yard punt return average and 27.9 yard kick return average).
Here are some of the notable wide receivers/kick returners from the past decade that Bengals fans would love to see Erickson blossom into:
During his playing days, Welker was one of the best slot receivers in the game. Before he shined with the Patriots and Broncos, Welker started out returning kicks for the Chargers and Dolphins. In his rookie season, he didn’t catch a pass but did return 100 kicks and punts for 1,777 yards with an average of 10.8 yards per punt return and 23.2 yards per kick return. Welker ended up as a two-time first team all pro and a five-time pro bowl selection.
The way the Patriots and Broncos used Welker has been a model for how to utilize slot receivers. Marvin Lewis and the Bengals staff could use Erickson in this role in the future
During his rookie season, Cribbs caught one pass for seven yards and returned 46 kicks for 1,099 yards with an average of 5.0 yards per punt return and 24.3 yards per kick return. Cribbs finished his career with a first team all-pro honor and three Pro Bowl appearances.
Starting his career with the Chicago Bears as a cornerback, Hester tallied 1,128 return yards. He had an average of 12.8 yards per punt return, 26.4 yards per kick return and no receptions in his rookie season. He ended up earning three first team all pro honors and 4 pro bowl selections.
Looking at the statistics of notable returners, Erickson is about on par with them in their first season. Does this mean that Erickson, an undrafted free agent that played sparingly at wide receiver is destined for greatness? Of course not, but does it mean that if he keeps making the most of his opportunities he can become an explosive asset to the Bengals offense in the future? Absolutely.
If Erickson has a positive off-season, look for him to keep making plays in the kick return game. He’ll also get more opportunities as a slot receiver in four and five wide sets. The season didn’t have many bright spots for the Bengals, but Erickson was one. Hopefully, he can build on that success going forward.