Cincinnati Bengals: Analyzing the cornerback position

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports /

Going in-depth and breaking down the Cincinnati Bengals cornerback position.

The Cincinnati Bengals have invested a hefty amount of draft capital at cornerback in recent years. Despite that, the Bengals have still relied on veterans such as Adam “Pacman” Jones to help hold down the secondary, letting young players develop. So what then can we expect for the 2017 season in Cincinnati.

With the offseason still in full swing, much of the talk about teams is regarding outlook for various players and groups. Thus, we’ve been going through the Bengals one position group at a time. The quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen and defensive linemen, and linebackers have all been touched on already.

We move on to the cornerbacks.


Dre Kirkpatrick (46 tackles, 3 INTs, 10 passes defensed)
Adam Jones (66 tackles, 1 Forced Fumble, 1 INT, 7 passes defensed)
Josh Shaw (56 tackles, 1 INT, 3 passes defensed)
Darqueze Dennard (47 tackles, 1 pass defensed)
William Jackson III (N/A)
Bene Benwikere (10 tackles, 1 INT, 4 passes defensed)
KeiVarae Russell (1 tackle, 1 INT)
Tony McRae (N/A)
Brandon Wilson (N/A)

* = expected starter | 2016 statistics in parenthesis

In other articles, I’ve been critical of Cincinnati’s decision-making and long-term planning for their roster. But if there is one area where it doesn’t ring true, it would be with their cornerback position. Even when they’ve appeared set, they’ve plotted out multiple seasons into the future with their moves there to assure the team would have capable players ready to step in for the short- and long-term.

Among this group, you see a bunch of assets acquired through a wide range of methods. Three players have been picked up with first-round picks (Kirkpatrick, Dennard, Jackson III). A couple have been grabbed off the scrap heap (Jones, Benwikere). Another was a mid-rounder (Shaw).

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In practically every case, we see a couple similar themes develop:

  1. Regardless of who they’ve had on the roster at the position, they haven’t hesitated to add in more talent.
  2. They are willing to wait multiple years before putting those players into major roles.

When Jones joined the team in 2010, they already had Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph as starters, and then added Nate Clements in 2011 when Joseph left. As Kirkpatrick came into the fold in 2012, the team already had Hall, Terence Newman, Clements, and Jones entrenched as their top four guys.

Dennard joined in 2014, with Hall, Newman, and Jones still holding down the top three spots and Kirkpatrick waiting in the wings. When Jackson was brought in last season, the team had Jones, Kirkpatrick, and Dennard set for quality roles, and then Shaw ended up as a major part of the equation as well.

It took Jones two seasons to really become a sizeable piece of the defensive gameplan (55.81 percent of Cincinnati’s defensive snaps in 2012), and three years before he was truly integral to their plans. 2013 was the first season he played in more than half of Cincinnati’s games, and his first time with 600+ defensive snaps for the team.

Kirkpatrick didn’t get into major snaps until 2015 (prior to that, his best total was 302 snaps in 2013). Dennard still hasn’t picked up major snaps after three years (his 332 in 2016 were his most so far; it was only 30.73 percent of the team’s defensive snaps). Shaw only waited a year to gain his current No. 3 cornerback role, but it likely would’ve been more if the Bengals felt comfortable about elevating Dennard by now.

Jackson III did technically lose his rookie year to injury, but based on the team’s history it likely would’ve been essentially a redshirt season anyway. Even being healthy this year probably won’t mean much more than waiting until next year at the earliest for a big role.

On paper, this is about as smart as a team can get with planning at a particular position: get your new guys extremely well-versed in your scheme while relying on quality veterans until those guys fulfill their contracts and move on. Even with all their focus and planning at this position, however, this group has its share of concerns.

By now, we all know of the long list of off-field issues connected to Jones. I’m sure you also know he added more infractions to the list at the start of this year. In this case, at least part of it was tossed out with the prosecutor outright saying he was being an idiot (per ESPN). That may sound harsh to some, but oftentimes the truth is rigid.

The man has remained talented as hell on the field, but off it he has never been able to remove stupidity from his actions; that’s just what you get with him. The owner and team know that and are sticking with him yet again despite the off-field issues attached. Even as he grows older and his skills decline, he’s been deemed worth the risk to them. As long as he stays on the field, it doesn’t appear any amount of issue would precipitate a change.

That makes sense when considering the rest his position group, though.

Even at 33 years old, Jones was (by certain measures) the best corner the team had last season. Based on Pro Football Focus’ grading metrics, he comes out with a 77.7 overall grade while his closest competition is Kirkpatrick’s 74.7. That mainly comes from a massive advantage in run defense. In PFF’s run defense grading, Jones was a 74.1 while Kirkpatrick was a 45.2, but he outpaced him in coverage as well, 78.1 and 75.6, respectively.

Dec 18, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (27) breaks up a pass intended for Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Sammie Coates (14) during the second half at Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers won 24-20. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 18, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (27) breaks up a pass intended for Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Sammie Coates (14) during the second half at Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers won 24-20. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports /

Kirkpatrick has shown the ability to improve dramatically already in his career, though, so that shouldn’t be ruled out. As a full-time starter in 2015, he was one of the worst players in the league in PFF’s overall grading metrics (39.6). That turned into a decent 2016. Another year in the starting spot could possibly see him take a leap into above-average territory (80.0+ grades) — something the Bengals are heavily banking on happening.

To keep Kirkpatrick from leaving, they tossed a lavish five-year, $52.5 million deal at him. The team can technically get out of it without crippling themselves after this year. According to Spotrac, the dead cap hit for cutting him will be $5.6 million in 2018 and continues dropping until it ends in after 2021. But as has been mentioned numerous times in the past, this team has a tendency to be excessively frugal. Basically, it’s unlikely he’d be moved on from until maybe 2020, even if he’s a complete catastrophe for the next couple seasons.

I wouldn’t expect his play to ever cause that to be an issue, but I definitely see a path where his 2016 season is essentially what he’ll be for his career. Value-wise, that’s not a $10.5 million per year player. The cap may continue to rise over the years, but no team would like the idea of paying that much to a guy whose production caps out below that of older guys this very same team let go of.

In PFF’s cornerback grades, Kirkpatrick was tied for No. 52 in overall grade in 2016, while former Bengals Hall and Joseph were No. 43 and No. 45, respectively. Hall and Joseph are 32 and 33, respectively — Kirkpatrick is 27. If he, in his prime, continues to be outperformed by players clearly past their own, that would be a bad return on investment for his team to say the least.

Looking beyond him, the outlook doesn’t exactly portend to many clear answers, but there are at least multiple plausible options to pick through.

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One would be expecting Shaw to continue holding onto the No. 3 cornerback role. Like Jones and Kirkpatrick, his 2016 was average. Unlike Kirkpatrick, however, his track record doesn’t show any drastic dips. This could easily just be based on a small sample size (less than 800 snaps in two combined seasons), but it could also be a glimpse of a young player who isn’t a clear target for opposing gameplans — one who may be able to take positive steps forward and become something more.

A decent career comp to hope for could be Captain Munnerlyn, who was able to put in multiple quality seasons in Minnesota — including a couple seasons in a similar defensive scheme to Cincinnati, headed by head coach (and former Bengals defensive coordinator) Mike Zimmer — before returning to Carolina this offseason. If Shaw can be the Bengals’ Munnerlyn, they’ll be happy.

Long-term, the team will need someone to take Jones’ starting role however, and there are two possibilities for that role: Dennard and Jackson III.

Based on production, Dennard can be called a bust to this point in his career. Based on the situation, I’d hesitate somewhat on that assessment, though. Though this will be his fourth season, the depth of at cornerback on this team hasn’t exactly left much of a clear role for him to even get on the field. I cannot say he’s been impressive when out there, of course, but his snaps across three seasons (583 snaps) don’t even add up to a season’s worth of play for a No. 3 cornerback.

2016 saw his biggest chunk of snaps in any of those years (334) and his worst performance in them (53.3 PFF overall grade). However, 2014-2015 held close to as many snaps for him (249), and in them, he was actually average (71.1 in 2014, 73.0 in 2015). He may not have shown a lot to be excited about last season, but there’s still a possibility for him to be useful if he can show more of the talent that once got him drafted in the first round.

Regardless of what happens with Dennard, Jackson III could be a better answer. Again, even without losing his rookie year to injury, he likely wouldn’t see much field time last year or this one. In the long-term, though, he could be a quality choice to handle the cornerback duties that Jones will eventually have to vacate.

Looking back at his draft profile, it was assumed that it would take a couple years for him to develop into the sort of player needed to handle multiple types of receivers. By next year, that’s where he’ll possibly be. Getting him some actual on-field time in the meantime — in a way they’ve never managed to do with Dennard — could be crucial in preventing the same issues from happening to him. As long as he’s healthy, that should be in the cards in some form this year.

If these options don’t work out, there’s still some stopgaps and longshots to consider, a testament to the focus given to the position.

Benwikere was last seen getting burned deep in Carolina, but he’s not long removed from being a key element of the defense there that helped the Panthers steal a playoff spot in 2015. That year, the Panthers defense was led by a terrorizing front, taking the pressure off the back end. Without that level of help up front (especially last season), he and the rest of the secondary were left on an island far too often.

Considering the moves to rebuild, the Cincinnati front seven and better back end depth than he ever saw with the Panthers. Therefore, it isn’t impossible to see him doing alright if called upon. Russell, McRae, and Wilson are all other young options the team has recently invested in who could possibly find themselves doing well in a similar role too.

Next: NFL 2017: Ranking the 30 best pass rushers

As a whole, this group is not one we should expect to change games themselves, but they are set up to be far from being considered a weakness, now and in their long-term future. If the moves around the rest of the defense work out, the unit could quickly become one worth talking about again.