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Solid draft coverage

Posted May 4, 2011

Darrin Simmons has a gleam in his eye these days. Like any NFL special teams coach, he's had a collage of body types line up at the most glamorous position in his field, the gunner on punt coverage.

But he's never had a guy 6-1, 250 pounds do it. Not a guy like the Bengals third-round pick, Nevada linebacker Dontay Moch that runs a cornerback 40 and jumps like an NBA 2-guard. Not a guy like the Ravens used to have in 6-2, 270-pound Adalius Thomas or a future Hall of Famer before Moch was even born in 1988.

"I don’t know why he couldn't be," Simmons said the other day. "Lawrence Taylor his rookie year was a hell of a gunner on the punt team. We've had guys that could run like him, but not as big as him. I love it. If you're going to err, err on the size of speed and strength."

The Bengals and those watching them don't think they erred very often last weekend with their eight draft picks. Mainly because the top two, wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton, were exactly what they needed to pull Bengaldom out of the malaise that has descended since Carson Palmer's pass bounced off Chad Ochocinco's hands in the last minute against Tampa Bay on Oct. 10.

But as dramatic as those selections change the offense, quiet picks in the third, fifth and seventh rounds may revamp the kick and punt teams just as much. Certainly Moch and fifth-rounder Robert Sands, a 6-5ish safety out of West Virginia, are going to be playing for Simmons right away.

And while seventh-rounder Korey Lindsey, a 5-10, 188-pound small college dynamo from Southern Illinois, doesn't come in with great punt return pedigree (5.5-yard average on 34 returns), his willingness to tackle along with a 4.4 40-yard dash and a 16 bench press make him tailor-made for special teams and could give him an edge in a roster cutdown.

"Korey Lindsey is a shorter guy, but he's got very, very good quickness," Simmons said, "and he has a willingness to come up and hit. You're looking for guys that can help and contribute on special teams early on. You want guys that can run, like to hit and will tackle. Hopefully all three guys fit that mold and I think they do."

It's a factor when the Bengals are looking at the board. Especially in this draft that didn't have a lot of standouts but solid players. Not only do needs have to be weighed but also the ability to roster right away as a special teams player.

No one thinks Moch is going to play much from scrimmage early on as he makes the transition from college end to NFL linebacker, but he'll be a special teams regular and suit up Sundays. Seconds after the pick was made, former Ravens head coach Brian Billick allowed on NFL Network that it was a solid "45 (active players) gameday pick."

Same thing with Sands. He won't be in there from scrimmage, at least early on, but he'll be dressed Sundays for Simmons.   

And there might be one guy that doesn't fit the mold but could. Simmons takes a look at the sixth-rounder, Stanford's Ryan Whalen, a 6-1, 202-pound wide receiver, and maybe he's got a latter-day Kevin Walter. As Andrew Luck's go-to guy, Whalen doesn’t figure to have a lot of special teams experience but Walter didn't either when the Bengals plucked him off waivers from the Giants and he turned into a special teams staple on those '04 and '05 teams before he became Andre Johnson's running mate in his next life.

If Whalen can't pull the trigger on special teams, he could end up as the sixth receiver not dressed for games if he makes it.

"He's a bigger guy, smart, he's going to do things the right way," Simmons said. "Kevin Walter hadn't done it before and he fit right in here. Smart guy that could play. He could be that type of guy."

Simmons already knows that Moch is. Here's a guy that says he ran 4.18 seconds at his junior Pro Day and the scouts made him run it a couple of more times to make sure they had it right. He vertically jumps 42 inches. He didn't have a combine, he had an Olympics.

"Once again, I try to shock and amaze people; that’s what I want to do with my career,” Moch actually said this weekend.

There may be questions about his instincts, but none about his brains and brawn. Moch bench-pressed his Wonderlic and the Chandler, Ariz., native displayed his magnetic personality when he was at Paul Brown Stadium during the draft.

"The biggest thing with him is his eagerness. He's very impressive. He's willing," Simmons said. "He wants to succeed and that's half of it for these young guys. He has no grand illusions. He feels fortunate to be where he's at and wants to go out and prove his worth. That's a big part of it."

With Simmons scouring the draft for cover guys that match the club's potential needs in the draft, he had his eye on Moch early and noted on the East-West all-star game tape he stood out on kickoffs before he went to the combine "where he definitely didn't disappoint … speed is something you can't coach." Simmons was also on Sands and watched him work out of a spread punt formation that a lot of colleges are using now.

"You don't see guys that tall and he likes to hit," Simmons said. "He's somebody I watched on special teams in college. He was involved in some phases. He played kind of a tackle/gunner role where he wasn't responsible to block a lot because they can release on the snap. He played there, he played on the kickoff. He had a tackle and forced fumble I thought was very impressive. He showed a willingness to stick his face in there and he does a great job tearing and shedding off blocks and getting to the ball."

Simmons is still smarting from his kick cover team giving up two touchdowns last season, the first time that's happened in his eight seasons with the Bengals, and the musical chairs he had at gunner on the punt team because of injury. The only good thing about that is the special teams aren't as raw as they were last year, thanks to the battlefield promotions.

Now Simmons has a plethora of gunners, starting with the guy that came off the practice squad and impressed in the last month, Jeromy Miles, a free agent rookie. But there are other guys like Andre Caldwell, Morgan Trent, Brandon Ghee, Jonathan Wade, Fred Bennett, Rico Murray and Bernard Scott that did it.

But some of those guys won't be here and some of them the coaches don't want doing it because they're playing so much from scrimmage. Which is why the search is always on. Especially this year with the lockout.

"Everybody gets hurt by the lockout, but the guys that get hurt the most are these young kids," Simmons said. "We need them here and they need to be here."

It doesn't help special teams coaches, either. Simmons deals with the bottom half of the roster and that's the most unsettled position on every NFL roster at the moment. He had to laugh as he talked about the draft picks.

"They're the only players I know I've got," he said. "I'm not sure who's on our team. It's like that everywhere."

But unlike last year when he had all but one, Simmons has a pretty good idea that he'll have his top tacklers back. Linebackers Dan Skuta and Roddrick Muckelroy, with 16 and 12 respectively, are back as is punt returner Quan Cosby (10). Linebacker Brandon Johnson (9) may or may not be a free agent. Ghee and safety Reggie Nelson (six each) are back, too.

Yet they're not back yet on the field. So Simmons does what coaches do as they wait for the judges and the suits. Charting the comings and goings of special teams coaches throughout the league, he notes where they've come from in the NFL and is starting to prepare his game day strategy with the ever-present tendencies.

But he's got a gleam in his eye as he ponders a 250-pound gunner.

"How'd you like to be a guy lined up at corner out there?" Simmons wondered aloud. "He'd be scary." 

 

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