- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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Welcome to the Cincinnati Bengals' first off day of training camp.
We begin with ith only one morning take, and we'll have our regular multiple "takes" again Wednesday. This lone take has to do with Danieal Manning, the veteran safety who came to Cincinnati via free agency.
While Manning's addition ought to aid the Bengals' establishment of secondary depth, he was brought on board for at least one more reason. A noted kick returner from his time in Chicago and Houston, his special teams versatility was a plus, too. He's quick to point out that he's not out to take any other player's job, but he's hopeful he can help this area of the Bengals' game.
"The guys we've got back there working are a set of explosive players that are definitely returners already or some that are hidden talents," Manning said. "You've got a lot of options on this team to put guys in who are comfortable enough to make the play. What I bring is just more experience."
Brandon Tate is another veteran with kick-return experience. He came into camp as Cincinnati's primary returner following his impressive season in 2013. Unlike what Manning is trying to do as a defensive back/returner, Tate wasn't used as regularly at his offensive position in 2013. Special teams was his forte. On offense, he caught just one pass. If the Bengals elect to use him more offensively this season, Tate says he'll be happy. But he'll also be just fine if his primary job is to return kicks again. He just wants to make the team.
Tate's comparable lack of versatility has made him a potential roster bubble candidate.
Manning, who has practiced as a returner, along with Tate, Cedric Peerman, and others, approaches kick-returning as a science. He broke down for me last week ways he focused on bursting past wedges and through seams in the past, and compared them with tweaks he might make if he has difficulty enacting those old ways. Like many things in football can be, kick-returning is about adjustments and improvisation, he said. It's also about figuring out whether you're a returner who uses his speed to set up the play, or one who shows off some physicality.
"That's the thing about it, you have to know your skill," Manning said. "I'm a fast guy, and I'm a physical runner. Some guys are fast and very elusive."
The nine-year veteran was one of the NFL's best physical returners before injuries started creeping in the past two years. He contends that injuries aside, his ability is still there. It's sometimes easy to forget how solid a returner Manning was when he played for the Bears between 2006-10, simply because of the punt returner who stole all the special teams headlines, Devin Hester.
Manning had 28 or more kick returns for the Bears each season between 2008-10, as the Bears paired him with Hester and Johnny Knox. Manning's best kick-returning season came in 2008 when he returned 36 kicks for an average 29.7 yards. Granted, that was seven seasons ago.
When it comes to setting up strong field position as a kick returner, Manning has given his teams slightly better starting field position than Hester and Tate. Offenses have an average 68.8 yards to travel following one of Manning's returns since he's been in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Hester's career returns on average set up field position that started drives 72.1 yards away from the end zone. Tate's returns have set up an average 75.0 yards for his offenses to travel. With respect to Hester, it's also worth mentioning that he has five career kick-return touchdowns while Tate and Manning only have one each.
As much as his defensive talents are currently a reason he's on the Bengals' roster, Manning's special teams background gives the Bengals a noted measure of experience that could at the very least make him a valuable meeting-room resource, if not a regular returning talent himself.