Sometimes even an easy decision can be tough to make, which was the case for the Cincinnati Bengals on Tuesday as they terminated the contract of veteran wide receiver and returner Brandon Tate as part of a series of moves to cut the roster to the limit of 75.
“The two worst days of the year are the 75 cutdown and the 53 cutdown,” special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said. “It’s always tough anytime you waive a player, especially with somebody like Brandon, somebody you have a great deal of trust in. We’ve won a lot of games with Brandon Tate.”
Fifty-two games, in fact, in five playoff seasons since Tate signed with the Bengals as a free agent in 2011.
He leaves as the franchise’s career leader in punt returns (149) and punt-return yardage (1,411) and ranks second in kick-return yardage (3,517). Tate also caught 33 passes for 469 yards and three touchdowns.
“He’s been a guy that’s been essential to what we’ve done the last couple years,” tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “He’s been a pro’s pro, a great example and leader for the guys. He will be missed. Definitely a guy that helped us probably more than people realized.”
Tate likely still would be part of the plans for the Bengals had it not been for the emergence of Alex Erickson. The undrafted rookie wide receiver from Wisconsin has been the biggest surprise of the preseason as he’s made big plays seemingly every time he’s touched the ball.
It began in the preseason opener, when he followed a 3-yard touchdown reception from AJ McCarron with an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown. In the second game at Detroit, he returned a punt 30 yards. And Sunday night at Jacksonville, Erickson had punt returns of 39 and 18 yards.
That’s four punt returns of at least 18 yards. Tate’s longest return in 27 attempts last year was 18 yards.
“I think Alex earned a spot,” Simmons said. “Not that Brandon lost it, but I think Alex earned that spot with his playmaking ability. You saw it.
“We really didn’t know what we had because there really wasn’t a whole lot of evidence of that on tape from Wisconsin.”
Erickson will join Adam Jones and rookie Tyler Boyd as the punt returners, and he, Jones and Rex Burkhead will handle kick returns.
Asked how he feels confident putting an undrafted rookie back to return the first punt of the season in New York, Simmons didn’t hesitate.
“I don’t think we would’ve made the move if we didn’t,” he said. “There’s always going to be anxiety that comes with any of that type of stuff. … f it’s Alex that stands back there for the first punt, it’s Alex that stands back for the first punt. We’re blessed in the fact that we have a lot of options.”
Head coach Marvin Lewis said he hopes releasing Tate at the 75 cut instead of 53 will give him some options as well.
“Brandon Tate has meant a great deal to the football team and how to do things the correct way all the time,” Lewis said. “That’s one of the harder decisions we’ve had to make for a good person, good man, great family. Gives him hopefully another jump on an opportunity this year.”
Also Tuesday, the team put rookie defensive tackle Andrew Billings on season-ending injured reserve, placed defensive tackle Brandon Thompson on the inactive/physically unable to perform list and released wide receiver Mario Alford with an injury designation.