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Finding a kicker priority one for Bengals special teams

, jowczarski@enquirer.com

MOBILE, Alabama – Darrin Simmons glanced down to an end zone at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, the site of the North and South team practices this year in the run-up to the Senior Bowl on Saturday.

He nodded his head at the direction of Arkansas punter Toby Baker, who was walking along the goal line doing a drill while the rest of the field was occupied with the position groups. Such small things are what the Cincinnati Bengals special teams coordinator is looking for this week.

There are only two place kickers and two punters on each team for Simmons to evaluate this week, with Arizona State kicker Zane Gonzalez joining Baker on the North team and Miami punter Justin Vogel joining Memphis kicker Jake Elliott on the South squad. So it’s the little things that matter.

What are they doing when they’re not the center of attention on the field? How are they utilizing their time? For the kickers, how deep into the stands does the ball fly at certain distances on their kicks? And of course there is the individual meeting time.

“Those are part of the process, the feel that you get,” Simmons said.

It’s a feel Simmons may need to hone.

The Bengals head into the offseason without a placekicker under contract for the first time since the end of the 2009 season.

“The number one area, obviously we’ve got to find a kicker,” Simmons said. “That’s one.”

As for how not having a veteran under contract impacts him, events like the college all-star games and the combine require a longer antennae.

“I pay attention to these guys anyway but obviously you keep a closer eye on that stuff than you typically would had you had somebody like Mike who for years and years was under contract and you always felt good about him,” Simmons said. “You watch a little bit more intently, spend a little more time, do a little more research on these guys and see they’re an option.”

It may be the top priority in his mind, but it who it is or where he comes from doesn’t mean a whole lot.

Simmons said Tuesday it’s too early in the evaluation process to talk about the potential on any of the kicking prospects eligible in April’s draft, but he said it’s something he wouldn’t be afraid of vouching for if the right player was available and the team felt expending of its potential 11 draft picks on one was just.

“We did that in the past with (punter) Kevin (Huber) and he’s turned out to be a good player for us, a solid player for us,” Simmons said. “That is a lot of picks, but we may find somebody between now and then, too.”

Free agency comes before the draft, and it’s possible the team signs a veteran to fill the spot entirely, if not compete for it.

Randy Bullock, who replaced Nugent with three games left, went 5-for-6 on field goals and 6-for-6 on extra points. Bullock did just enough to warrant consideration for a return to the Bengals, but if he did re-sign Simmons said another kicker would be in camp.

“Whoever it is, we’ll find somebody,” Simmons said. “We’ll find somebody.”

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