CINCINNATI – Nothing is a given in the National Football League. The success you’ve had in the past– whether it was last week or last season– only matters if you can duplicate that success over and over again.
The 2016 season was somewhat a disappointment for the Cincinnati Bengals in many regards, but one of the bright spots to show up during the team’s first non-playoff season since 2010 was the play of rookie Alex Erickson in the return game.
The Darlington native was a long shot to make the team coming out of Wisconsin as an undrafted free agent wide receiver until the skills he displayed in the return game during the preseason allowed the former Badger to take the place of the Bengals’ veteran return-man, Brandon Tate, and secure a spot on the 53-man roster.
Erickson made his presence felt early in his NFL career scoring two touchdowns in his first preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings, the first on a 3-yard pass from A.J. McCarron and the second on a jaw-dropping 80-yard punt return touchdown to endear himself to his team, his coaches and Bengals fans alike.
He finished the preseason leading the NFL with 185 punt return yards and a 30.83 yard per return average on his way to unseating Tate as the Bengals’ returner.
Erickson’s return skills would continue to keep him on the field throughout his rookie season and he was just one of three Bengals’ rookies to appear on the gameday roster in all 16 of the team’s regular season games.
After a bit of a slow start compared to his dazzling preseason performance, Erickson– who only returned kicks full-time during his senior year at Wisconsin– got better and better as the season wore on. He ripped off his first big kickoff return in a game played at London’s Wembley Stadium against the Washington Redskins in week eight with a 65-yarder return early in the game that helped set up a touchdown.
He added an 84-yard kickoff return– the eighth best in the league all season– in a Monday Night Football game against the New York Giants in week 10, and then had a 72-yard kickoff return against Pittsburgh in week 14.
Erickson finished the year leading the NFL in kickoff returns with 810 yards and he led the AFC with 27.9 yard per return average, placing second overall in the entire NFL behind Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson at 31.7 ypr.
“I think it was a point of pride for the entire unit,” Erickson told Bengals.com in an interview. “I don’t like to say it was my number, because it was our number. There are 10 guys blocking in front of me and we all have to do our job. It’s a collective unit and we take great pride in trying to be the best in the NFL. It was kind of a tale of two seasons with our return units. It was slow to start and not up to our standard and then we really got going and started playing to our potential. It showed in the second half of the season.”
He also returned 28 punts for 195 yards and had six receptions for 71 yards in limited action with the offensive unit.
Now, on the eve of his second training camp with the Bengals, Erickson, 24, will once again be in a battle for a roster spot after the team added two receivers and two other players with return skills during April’s NFL draft.
Along with the pressure of living up to the expectations to repeat his performance of last season by fighting off the next batch of rookies, the 6’0” 190-lbs. Erickson also has the challenge of fighting for more playing time on an offense that appears to be loaded with skilled veterans and plenty of young talent.
This, in a nutshell, is what life in the NFL is all about. You can never relax, ease up or get too comfortable because someone is always pushing to steal your place on the team.
“Every day (in camp) is an up and down battle internally against yourself and externally against the other guys. I feel like being battle-tested is one of those things that if you’ve never been through it, it’s tough to deal with. And, I’ve been through it.”
Last season the Bengals drafted a pair of wide receivers in Pittsburgh’s Tyler Boyd and Mississippi’s Cody Core. Boyd was impressive at times finishing third on the team with 54 catches for 603 yards and a TD, while Core had a quiet season with 17 catches for 200 yards and no scores but has drawn fave reviews during off-season OTAs for his progress.
At April’s draft, the Bengals selected speedy John Ross out of the University of Washington in the first round and added Tennessee’s Josh Malone in the fourth round to bolster their receiving core.
The team also added Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon in the second round and Houston defensive back Brandon Wilson in the sixth round, who will both likely compete along with Ross in the return game along side Erickson.
“I feel like, as a competitor, an athlete and a professional, that’s what you want. It’s only going to make you better and, at the end of the day, all you can be is the best version of yourself. It’s going to make me better. It’s going to make the other guys better. And, at the end of the day, it’s going to make the Bengals better. That’s what we’re all about,” declared Erickson.
Veteran receivers A.J. Green, who led the team with 66 catches for 964 with four TDs, and Brandon LaFell, who was second with 64 catches for 862 yards and a team-high six TDs, also are back for another season with the Bengals along with several other undrafted players and practice squad holdouts who are still on the roster. That makes for a full receivers room and one which is chock full of talent, which may lead the team to consider keeping as many as seven receivers if they have the roster freedom to do so.
One person Erickson has impressed in his play last season and his improvement this off-season is Bengals’ wide receivers coach James Urban.
“The kid never ceases to raise my eyebrows,” remarked Urban in an article posted on CincyJungle.com. “He can play inside, he can play outside, and he can play all three positions at any time. He can run all day, he knows the subtleties of how to play, he’s competitive, and he’s fiery.”
It has been a pretty crazy summer for Erickson already, but he has taken it all in stride as he handles the rigors of balancing his personal life with life in the NFL.
He was able to spend quite a bit of time back in Darlington during the off-season, catching up with family and friends while making visits to area schools and taking in Redbirds’ basketball games when he had the chance.
He also had to find time to fit in film study and get in workouts with former UW teammates and current NFL players Joe Schobert and Joel Stave.
“For me personally, I wanted to work on a lot of things like every guy does. Wide receiver stuff like getting better at running routes, improving my speed and just being a more complete player,” Erickson said. “On special teams, I wanted to learn from the film I had from last year. I worked on my decision-making so that it’s never an issue, which allows you to play faster and be more free out on the field. Hopefully, it shows up on Sundays.”
At the end of June, Erickson held his first youth football camp at his alma mater and had more than 250 kids attend the two-day camp. Despite some bad weather on the opening day, the camp was a rousing success.
“It’s pretty cool the support I get and belief the community has in me. They want the best for me whether it’s on the football field or my life in general. That’s what it’s all about. It means everything to me to come back to the community of Darlington,” Erickson stated.
Personally, the Erickson family had quite a summer as well as Alex’s brother, Mitchell, got married in June; and then, less than two weeks before the start of training camp, Alex himself tied the knot when he wed his high school sweetheart, Kelsi (Blosch).
“It’s been a wild summer and on top of it you have to stay in shape and keep training. It’s been a busy summer, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he admitted. “Kelsi and I get to start our lives together. We’re real excited about that.”
Rookies reported to Bengals’ training camp on Tuesday, and the veterans are set to report on Thursday. The team’s first practice of the 2017 season begins on Friday, July 28, at 3 p.m. at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals’ first preseason game is schedule at home against Tampa Bay on Friday, Aug. 11.
“I feel like, as a player, I’m a lot farther ahead than I was last year at this point. It’s my second year and I have a whole year in the NFL under my belt. Confidence-wise, I am feeling very confident at this point,” said Erickson. “It’s going to be a battle in camp just like it is every year. I know that coming in and the other guys know that too, so I’ll be ready. It’s only going to help us all take the next step as players and as a team.”
Erickson has never been one to back away from a battle on the football field.
Not when he was a freshman at Darlington High School starting for the first time on varsity in the Redbirds’ third game of the season. All he did that day was throw for 198 yards and four touchdowns while leading the ‘Birds to a 48-0 win over Boscobel.
Not when he switched positions to wide receiver at UW and worked his way from being a walk-on with the Badgers to an All-Big Ten selection and one of the top all-time receivers at the school.
And, not when he went to Cincinnati last summer as an undrafted free agent and earned his spot on the team with an amazing preseason, and then lived up to the preseason hype by finishing as one of the top return men in the entire NFL.
Instead, he’ll attack the challenge like he’s always done– with a smile on his face and a competitive fire burning inside.
“I’ve been through a lot of battles. This year is going to be no different than last year and the years to come. It’s going to be a battle every year,” Erickson replied.
With only so many reps in practice and games to go around the Bengals’ talented receiving corps, Erickson knows he has to be ready to go when his chances arise.
“We got a deep room. I’m going to do what I do, keep my head down and keep busting it. When the opportunities present themselves, I just have to be ready to make the plays. That’s all I can do,” said Erickson. “Only two receivers play nearly every down, only three play a majority of downs and the rest have to make the most of the opportunities provided to them.”
As if he needed any extra incentive to make the team this year, the Bengals have a very special game on their schedule this season– a trip to Green Bay on Sept. 24 to face the Packers at the historic Lambeau Field.
Erickson grew up cheering for the Packers and dreaming of a day when he would have the chance to play professionally on the hallowed gridiron.
Instead of doing it for the Green and Gold, he may get the chance to do so with the Orange and Black. He won’t back down from that challenge either.
“Not only Wisconsin people, but everyone who watches the NFL knows what Lambeau Field is about and knows the history of the place. I grew up a Packers’ fan and watching them play there, so to be able to go against the Packers and play at Lambeau Field will be something special. It will make it even more special when we win it,” he said with a smile.
Many Packers’ fans, especially those around southwest Wisconsin, will be rooting hard for him that day. Although, maybe not so much for a Bengals’ win.