Our Cincinnati Bengals pre-camp preview series continues with a look at the special teams…
The Bengals kicking game is in good hands — er, good shape — with a pair of Ohio products, Mike Nugent and Kevin Huber.
Nugent made 33-of-38 field goals last season, and his 33 field goals and 132 points set franchise records. He’ll play 2012 under the franchise tag, giving him every reason to have another strong year and cash in with a long-term deal. The Bengals would like that as Nugent last year gave them stability they’d been missing since Shayne Graham started struggling and Nugent missed seven games in 2010 due to injury.
Huber averaged a career-best 44.2 per punt last year and safely landed 24 kicks inside the 20. His punt-covering teammates — and 26 fair catches — helped his net average finish at 39.2, which ranked in the top half of the league.
Long snapper Clark Harris is back for his fourth season in Cincinnati. Long snappers only get noticed when they screw up, but having Harris back with Huber and Nugent provides continuity and decreases the chances such screw-ups might happen.
The Bengals would like to get more out of the return game than they got last season, when Brandon Tate was claimed just before the regular season and served as both the primary kickoff and punt return man. The Bengals ranked in the bottom third of the league at 22.8 yards per kickoff return but seventh in the league at 11.5 per punt return, an average boosted by some big plays in the back half of last season.
Tate had some good moments, but the Bengals would like to be consistently more dangerous in the return game. Look for rookie receiver Marvin Jones to get his chances, and Adam Jones has campaigned for a chance to be the punt returner as well.
Figure Bernard Scott out of the rotation/discussion at kick returner as he’s expecting a bigger role in the offense. Marvin Jones could get the second shot at kick returner. Also in the mix could be Cedric Peerman and undrafted rookie receiver Kashif Moore.
The ability to cover kicks and play special teams could help decide battles for roster spots at backup running back, wide receiver and in the secondary. Linebacker Dontay Moch’s suspension to start the year is a blow to the kick cover units as well.
INTRIGUING ROOKIE: Fifth-round receiver Marvin Jones is in a crowded battle to win a job at his primary position. He might be able to help his case while also competing for the return jobs. Jones was Cal’s primary punt return man in games only during his senior season — and only after begging coach Jeff Tedford for the opportunity. His 4.46 time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine last winter suggests he could pop some big returns if he can find daylight.
ON CALL: Veteran cornerback Adam Jones said in the spring that winning the punt return job is a priority, and that he knows he needs to be healthy — and stay healthy — for the coaches to allow him to have a chance at winning it. Going through his first full spring since ’07 should help that, and though he might not get a bunch of chances in August he has the talent to maximize them.
He had two punt returns last year, including a 63-yarder during which he injured his hamstring in Seattle. Tate took a punt 56 yards for a touchdown later in the same game.
Does that tell us that the Bengals have multiple viable options or that the Seahawks punt coverage was just really bad? Maybe a little of both. With the state of the secondary, the Bengals need Adam Jones to produce there first, and if he does his chances in the return game can come later.
FINAL COUNT: The Bengals figure to have easy decisions at kicker, punter and long snapper. As for the return jobs, there are multiple legitimate candidates and each should have chances. Tate might have first chance based on last year, but the battle figures to last through August.