CINCINNATI — For Alex Erickson, Darlington and Lafayette County will always be considered his home.
But the NFL aspirant is hoping to find a new home for himself in Cincinnati.
After spending much the summer working out in Cincinnati and impressing the Bengals’ coaching staff and followers throughout rookie camp, mini-camps and OTAs, the 23-year old undrafted free agent will be putting the pads and trying to secure a spot on Bengals’ 53-man roster at his first National Football League training camp.
The Bengals open their 2016 training camp with a 3 p.m. practice on Friday at the Paul Brown Stadium practice fields. Erickson will don his #12 jersey alongside 89 other rostered players in hopes of fulfilling his dream of playing in the NFL.
The former Redbird and Wisconsin Badger standout is one of 12 wide receivers in the camp. There will only be room on the Bengals’ roster for six or seven wideouts. Two or three other receivers may also be signed the team’s 10- man practice squad following final cuts.
“It’s going to be tough. I got a little taste of things with the OTAs and minicamps, but now we’re going into training camp and putting the pads on. Everything is going to up another notch,” said Erickson in a recent interview following his turn in the dunk tank at the Shullsburg Fourth of July celebration.
The Bengals have only three wide receivers on their current roster with more than three seasons of NFL experience, led by five-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green, who led the team in receptions (86), receiving yardage (1,297), yards from scrimmage (1,297) and touchdowns (10) last season.
Brandon LaFell, a seven-year NFL veteran who signed with the team as a free agent in the off-season, and Brandon Tate, an eight-year NFL veteran who has led the team in punt returns the past few seasons, will provide the experience to the Bengals’ youthful receiving corps.
Five of the remaining nine receivers are rookies like Erickson, while the other four have three or less experience in the league. Included among those receivers is second-year pro Jake Kumerow, a 6’5” pass catcher out of UW–Whitewater.
With the loss of starters Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu in the offseason, there is definitely opportunity to fill open spots on the roster.
“It’s a good opportunity to go there and compete for a job. All you can ask for is an opportunity and that’s what I have here. I’m excited for the opportunity and I’m looking forward to [training camp]. It’s been a good fit here so far,” mentioned Erickson.
Opportunity was one of the reasons he signed with Cincinnati as an undrafted free agent following the 2016 NFL Draft, and so far he has been happy with the choice he made in picking the Bengals among several suitors.
“When I was going through the draft process, the stuff [the Bengals’ staff] would say things about me as a player was the stuff I would say about me as a player. They see the same things I see in myself. That makes for a good fit because I know what my strengths are and they are going to use me for my strengths. It’s exciting knowing that they really wanted me for the player that I am,” he noted.
Listed at 6’0” and 195 pounds, Erickson is among the shortest and lightest receivers on the Bengals’ roster and his time of 4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash is not considered blazing speed for an NFL receiver. However, his route-running ability, his ability to get open down the field, his sure hands and his return skills have all earned him praise during rookie camp and mini-camps earlier in the summer.
“He gets in and out of cuts with a very low center of gravity and does a good job of creating separation,” said broadcaster Dave Lapham in an article written by Bengals broadcaster Dan Hoard on Bengals.com. “There are a lot of abilities that you have to have to be able to play in the National Football League and people look at him and say that he’s not a very big guy or a super-fast guy and that’s why he didn’t get drafted, but there’s reliability and accountability. If I’m a quarterback and I throw the ball Erickson’s way — from what I’ve seen here at the camps he catches it. Nothing has hit the ground that he should have caught. You can have all the speed in the world and all of the route-running ability in the world, but if you can’t catch the football it’s all a moot point. This guy makes plays. Every single practice that I’ve been to, he ends up making plays.”
Added Bengals’ receivers coach James Urban in the same article, “Alex Erickson is a smart, crafty, bright-eyed, hard-working football player. We’ll see how he looks when the pads come on. Sometimes little guys disappear, and sometimes they show up bigger than you ever think. I would not bet against him in any way. I’m anxious to see him in pads.”
As his first training camp approaches, the speed and physicality of the NFL will definitely be a step up for the 2015 All-Big Ten first-teamer out of Wisconsin.
“I’ve been exposed to (the NFL) the last two months, but we haven’t had a lot of contact. The contact will be something I’ll have to adjust to. I’ll be ready for it. I’m excited for it,” he stated.
Even bigger than the physical nature of the camp will be the mental side of things. He will only have so many chances to make an impression on the coaching staff, so he has to show up every practice ready to go.
“Obviously, physically you have to stay in shape, but the mental part is the big part of it.,” said Erickson. “There are going to be days where you’re tired and don’t feel like running, but you have to go out there and perform to the best of your ability.”
A big part of catching the coaches’ eyes will be consistency in practice and in games once the pre-season kicks off.
“I’m trying to be consistent in everything I do. Everyday coming back to work and being the same guy,” he added. “You’re going to have ups and downs, but if you’re the same guy throughout the process and remain consistent then they know what they’re going to get out of you. It makes for a lot better relationship.”
Erickson has spent the summer working out in Cincinnati and immersing himself in the Bengals’ playbook, but he said he hasn’t had a chance to explore the community other than participating in a few community service events around the Cincinnati area. He hopes to see more of the city if he finds himself on the final roster.
“Cincinnati is nice,” he said. “It’s a place I could definitely call home.”
If Erickson does make the team, he will have a large amount of his supporters back home in Wisconsin splitting their NFL loyalties between the hometown Packers– or Bears depending on who you are– and the Bengals. He hopes to add a bit of orange-and-black to the green-and-gold and red tint of their current wardrobes.
“It’s cool that I had a lot of support [from the area] during my time at Wisconsin. Everyone’s been so supportive. I try not to take it for granted because a lot of guys don’t have that type of support from their communities,” Erickson commented. “I says a lot about the people of this area, not only Darlington but Lafayette County and the whole southwest corner of the state. It’s been unbelievable. I really appreciate it and I know my family appreciates it, too. I couldn’t ask for a better community to grow up in and I’m grateful for it.”
The Bengals are scheduled to play their first pre-season game against the Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium on Friday, Aug. 12 starting at 6:30 p.m.
Cincinnati’s third pre-season game at Jacksonville on Sunday, Aug. 28, will be televised nationally on NBC at 7 p.m.