CINCINNATI -- For the past week of Cincinnati Bengals training camp, I've had the following thought:
Alex Erickson, an undrafted rookie signed this May out of Wisconsin, could be the stiffest competition fellow Bengals receiver Mario Alford has to make the team. Why? Because although their speed is slightly different, they have a similar general make-up as highly-elusive, dual-threat receiving punt returners.
Oh, and both are on the bubble, fighting hard for one of the team's final 53 spots.
It's an observation that hasn't been made this preseason, and one I publicized as Erickson celebrated his 80-yard punt return touchdown in the fourth quarter of Friday's preseason opener against the Minnesota Vikings. Had the Bengals' fourth-team offense converted a two-point conversion that immediately followed the score, Cincinnati might have won. Instead it lost, 17-16.
Haven't said this much on here, but have to think Alex Erickson is big competition for Mario Alford. Smooth WR who can return, too #Bengals— Coley Harvey (@ColeyHarvey) August 13, 2016
Don't get me wrong, this isn't to denigrate Alford's game and the way he has performed this summer (he had a 14-yard catch, a 9-yard punt return and a 30-yard kick return Friday). The 2015 seventh-round pick with sub-4.3 40 speed has flashed at times this preseason, but he has yet to consistently make plays the way Erickson has. In practices, you don't often see Erickson drop passes or come up just short of a potentially spectacular grab or slow down at the end of a route. He practically catches anything thrown near him.
The same can't fully be said of Alford, although when he has come down with a jaw-dropping grab, you can't help but rub your eyes, wondering how he made the snag.
Get this. The preseason is about two things: competition and taking advantage of opportunities. Erickson raised the stakes for Alford and other fringe Bengals receivers when he returned the punt for a touchdown and scored on an earlier 3-yard touchdown pass.
"That's what they brought us here for, just to compete," said second-round pick Tyler Boyd, whose spot on the roster is all but set in stone. "If you're afraid to compete at the highest level against all the greatest guys at this level, then you shouldn't be here. We love competing against the top-notch guys.
"At the end of the day, we're all competing as we try to accomplish one thing, and that's (earning) a position. But at the same time, we're going to help each other and learn and make it through the process."
Erickson has been learning the punt-return aspect of his game this preseason from veteran Adam Jones, one of the NFL's more fearless return specialists.
As Erickson returned to the sideline to celebrate his special teams score, Jones was one of the Bengals vets who greeted him.
"He just said 'great job.' He said, 'I knew you were going to have a chance when that guy drove the punt back,'" Erickson said. "Adam's been doing this for a long time. He's one of the best in the game. Watching him every single day, it helps to see how he works and how he makes guys miss and the angles he uses to set guys up, to set the blocks up. I've learned a lot just from watching him every single day."
After avoiding one tackle and then breaking a couple of other attempts, Erickson wiggled through a tight alley before breaking up the sideline and outrunning the Vikings' coverage team. Much of his return was improvised, but it still followed Jones' simplest advice: "Catching [the ball] with your feet in the right position, get going north, make your cuts, but always go forward."
Forward is exactly where Erickson's stock is going.