In the Bengals’ first 49 seasons, they have only had three players lead the AFC in kickoff return average: Tremain Mack in 1999, Adam Jones in 2014, and Alex Erickson last year.
Erickson’s 27.9 average ranked second in the NFL behind Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson (31.7) and was the second-best single season mark in team history behind Jones’ 31.3.
“I think it was a point of pride for the entire unit,” said Erickson. “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.”
The undrafted rookie wide receiver also led the team in punt return average (7.0) and finished with 6 catches for 71 yards.
“I feel good about it,” Alex said about his first season. “Obviously as a team we didn’t achieve what we know we can achieve, but personally I felt like I stepped into a role and embraced it.”
“He’s a little bit more than everything that you think he is,” said wide receivers coach James Urban. “He’s a good person and he has this choirboy look to him but he knows how to play and does it well.”
But despite his success in 2016, Erickson’s role is not guaranteed for the upcoming season. First round draft pick John Ross was primarily selected for his receiving ability, but he also returned four kickoffs for touchdowns at Washington. And fourth round pick Josh Malone adds another big, fast target to the wide receiver room.
“You don’t really know who they’re going to draft and there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Erickson. “They’re part of the Bengals now and they’re one of us. As a competitor and a professional athlete, if the room is deeper, everybody is going to be pushing and getting better. That’s good for the Bengals.”
“These guys all know what the reality is,” said Urban. “They’re no dummies. When they are standing back and watching the other guys take reps and see what they can do, they’re like, ‘Whoa.’ So it raises everybody’s level but they’re constantly coaching each other. There’s no bickering, there’s no complaining and they can’t wait to high-five their buddy when they see them make a play. It’s exactly what you want and it’s pretty cool to see.”
Erickson is no stranger to fighting for a spot on the team. He went from being a walk-on at Wisconsin to leading the Badgers in receptions in his last two seasons and he was the only college free agent to make the Bengals opening day roster last year.
“Like I said last year as an undrafted free agent – you’re going to have to compete for your spot,” Alex told me. “Now after a successful first year, you’re still going to have to compete for your spot. That’s the NFL. It’s the best of the best. There are a lot of great players out there and you have to bring it every single day.”
“The kid never ceases to raise my eyebrows,” said Urban. “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.”
And Erickson’s successful rookie season has made folks proud in his hometown of Darlington, Wisconsin.
“The fan base and the support that I have coming from a smaller community is pretty special,” said Erickson. “It’s something that I never take for granted and I appreciate all of the love and support. The amount of support that they show never ceases to amaze me. They follow the Bengals now and it’s good to get some orange-and-black in green-and-gold country.”
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