When the Bengals signed street free agent Chris Davis on Friday, they may have accomplished several things with one low-profile move as they added the third-year receiver/returner, who was out of the league last year.
At the very least, the team adds a versatile athlete who provides depth at receiver and on special teams, at a low cost. More importantly, Davis' presence creates immediate competition in the return game. He has been primarily a punt returner in college and in the NFL, with mixed results at the pro level. But he's flashed enough upside to be worthy competition for Quan Cosby. Davis has averaged 9.1 yards on 33 punt returns in his NFL career. Cosby averaged 11.9 on 40 punt returns his rookie season.
Davis, who turned 26 on Jan. 23, has some experience on offense, with seven receptions for 69 yards, which compares to Cosby's four catches for 58 yards. But the scouting report on Davis (5-10, 181 pounds) says he has more value as a return man. As a receiver, he can use his smaller frame to his advantage by creating good burst off the line, running precise routes and making quick cuts. However, some scouts say he has a tendency to catch the ball with his body instead of his hands. Davis' elusiveness makes him dangerous after the catch and in the open field as a returner.
What is intriguing about Davis is his untapped potential as a kick returner. He could be thought of as a replacement or perhaps a member of a time-share with Bernard Scott, should the Bengals see fit to limit Scott's touches in the return game. Davis has averaged 26.0 yards on six kickoff returns in his career. Scott led the Bengals last season with 31.5 yards on 16 kickoff returns after he took the job from Andre Caldwell, who ranked second on the team among those with more than two returns with an average of 18.6 yards on 29 attempts. Cosby ranked third at 18.4 on 13 kickoff returns.
With the departure of veteran tailback Larry Johnson, who recently signed a free-agent deal with Washington, Scott's role as change-of-pace back and No. 1 reserve behind starting tailback Cedric Benson becomes much more important. The Bengals last season preferred to limit Scott on special teams in games which he was expected to receive more carries out of the backfield. For this upcoming season, the team may decide to further limit Scott's return duties as his backfield role increases in an expanded offense.
The Bengals lost faith in Caldwell on kickoff return duties last season because of fumbling problems, and Cosby's return average fell short of Caldwell's when Cosby was given the opportunity to add to his punt-return chores. Scott was the only Bengals kick returner in 2009 to hit one for longer than 40 yards; he had a 96-yard return for a touchdown. The longest Bengals kickoff return by a player not named Bernard Scott was a 39-yarder by Caldwell.
Should Davis win the kick-return job in training camp - and that's pure speculation at this point - that would allow the Bengals to pick their spots with the use of Scott on offense. Selected use of Scott would also keep the second-year tailback fresh enough so that if he is required to fill in as the starter, which he did last season when Benson missed two games with a hip injury, he'd still be a dangerous weapon.
Then again, the Bengals have given no official indication regarding Scott's roles in 2010. Also, given the team's penchant for drafting running backs even when they seemingly don't need them, the Bengals may pick up a back in the draft who is better suited to be Benson's backup, which would free up Scott for more return duties. Scott's 31.5-yard kickoff return average, had it qualified, would have led the NFL last season. Scott's 37.4 average on two postseason kickoff returns was the best during the playoffs for players with more than one return. Clearly, he's a weapon when fielding kickoffs. But perhaps the Bengals feel the same way about Davis.
However, if Davis is to play a role in any kind of Bengals master plan, he first has to live up to his immense potential, which is a 50-50 proposition.
There is no question Davis is a premier athlete. At one time, he was considered by Parade Magazine as the best all-around prep athlete in the nation while a senior at St. Petersburg (Fla.) Catholic. That was in 2002 when Davis played quarterback, defensive back, wide receiver and returner and was an All-USA First-Team selection by USA Today. He totaled over 3,000 yards from scrimmage each of his last two years in high school. Among the many other accolades Davis received as a senior was the designation as the No. 6 overall football prospect in the country.
Davis took all that ability to Florida State where he finished among the school's all-time top-five with 134 career receptions. He ended his Seminoles career ranked 14th in career receiving yards with 1,770 and finished just 20 yards behind Anquan Boldin. Davis was FSU's top punt returner his senior season. In pre-draft workouts, Davis ran the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds and recorded a vertical jump of 36 inches.
Davis wound up being a 2007 fourth-round draft choice by the Tennessee Titans, the 128th overall pick. In two seasons with Tennessee from 2007-08, he played in just 17 games plus two postseason contests as a receiver and returner. He had two special teams fumble recoveries. But he also had trouble holding onto the football, fumbling six times, five on punts, his rookie season. Given the Bengals' severe reaction to Caldwell's fumbling issues in 2009, it would seem there's a good chance the team's patience also would be tested by Davis, should he earn a return job.
Davis also has some injury history. He was waived by Tennessee with an injury settlement (hamstring) on Aug. 28 of last year, and did not hook on with another NFL team during the 2009 regular season. In 2002 at FSU, he was a medical redshirt after tearing the ACL in his left knee two weeks prior to reporting to fall camp. He spent his first year on campus in rehabilitation.
There also has been a curious off-field issue. In an odd coincidence, Davis, according to various published reports, was arrested for DUI by the same police officer who arrested Titans quarterback Steve McNair for DUI in 2003. The same officer also arrested Sahel Kazemi for DUI in July 2009 just two days before Kazemi shot and killed McNair and then herself. Davis was waived by Tennessee a few days after his 2009 arrest. He was brought back to the team in November to help with a sputtering return game, but was released again.
Now Davis is a Bengal. And he could be much more than just another training camp body.