AFC North: T.J. Conley

Bengals sign punter T.J. Conley

April, 16, 2014
CINCINNATI -- On the same day they announced the start date of their training camp, the Cincinnati Bengals signed a special-teams player whose primary function will be to give them an additional training camp leg.

Punter T.J. Conley, formerly of the Browns and Jets, was signed Wednesday by the Bengals to serve as a backup to starting punter Kevin Huber, who ought to be fully recovered by late July from a December jaw injury. Huber missed the final two games of the regular season and a playoff game after breaking his jaw following a hard blindside hit from the Pittsburgh Steelers' Terence Garvin.

Conley comes to the Bengals after having spent the 2013 preseason with the Browns. He didn't make the team once the regular season started.

The 28-year-old last appeared in a regular-season game in 2011. He punted in all 16 games for the Jets that year, averaging 42.7 yards on 92 punts. His 38.8-yard net average was the highest in Jets history; the statistic was first tracked in 1976. He also had 32 kicks that fell inside the 20 and six touchbacks. Like he did with the Browns last season, Conley started the 2012 season with the Jets, but didn't make the main club by the regular season.

He entered the NFL with the Jets in 2009 as a free agent.

In an attempt to save their punters' and kickers' legs in the preseason, teams often sign multiple punters and kickers to help with the load. Conley will get some experience backing up Huber, just as kicker/punter Quinn Sharp ought to do the same behind kicker Mike Nugent. Sharp was signed to a future's contract at the end of the 2013 season.
The AFC North is finishing up the position ranks today, and I will have a wrap-up on all of the rankings Friday. Let's look at special teams, and the rankings are based on specialists and not coverage or return units as a whole.

1. Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens get the top spot based on the assumption that Jacoby Jones will remain the primary returner. He proved to be the most explosive returner in the NFL last season with four touchdowns (including playoffs). Justin Tucker exceeded expectations as a rookie last season with his accuracy (led the division at 90.9 percent) and distance on field goals. Punter Sam Koch has been solid for years and recorded a career-high 40.8-yard net average last season.

2. Cincinnati Bengals: Kevin Huber was the best punter in the AFC North last year. He led the division in net average (42.0) and punts inside the 20-yard line (33). Mike Nugent slipped to 82.6 percent conversion rate, but he was perfect inside 40 yards. The biggest concern with Nugent is durability. He has finished two of the past three seasons on injured reserve. The Bengals have some options at returner with Brandon Tate, Adam Jones and Onterio McCalebb, the fastest player at this year's NFL scouting combine.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers: Journeyman kicker Shaun Suisham has solidified himself in Pittsburgh. He has converted over 90 percent of his field goals in two of his three seasons with the Steelers. There's more uncertainty at punter and returner. Rookie punter Drew Butler was 25th in the NFL in net average (37.8), which is why he'll have competition this year from Brian Moorman, a two-time Pro Bowl punter. After spending 12 seasons with the Bills, Moorman had a below-average season last year with the Cowboys. At returner, the Steelers have to decide between LaRod Stephens-Howling, rookie sixth-round pick Justin Brown and undrafted rookie Reggie Dunn.

4. Cleveland Browns: The Browns didn't re-sign two Pro Bowl specialists from last year, kicker Phil Dawson and Josh Cribbs. The Browns downgraded at kicker, going from the one constant in their expansion era (Phil Dawson) to a player who is on his ninth team in five seasons (Shayne Graham). Graham ranked 23rd in the league last season with a 81.6 percent success rate on field goals. Cleveland also parted ways with ineffective punter, Reggie Hodges. Spencer Lanning and T.J. Conley, both of whom were out of the league last year, will compete for the punter job. Travis Benjamin is expected to replace Cribbs on punt returns, and Dion Lewis may take over on kickoffs.