The Bengals started free agency in their traditional and frustratingly slow way, laying low for the first few days then pouncing on some of the second-tier players to build depth and fill some starting positions. One of the greatest positions of need going into this offseason was cornerback. The team is still reeling from the loss of Johnathan Joseph to free agency, as well as from the injury that ended Leon Hall's 2011 season prematurely. With Adam Jones and Kelly Jennings hitting free agency, it left the team with the rehabbing Hall, an aging Nate Clements and the unproven Brandon Ghee.
Aside from the numerous mock drafts slating the team to take a young college star in next week's draft, the team acknowledged the need for able-bodied cornerbacks, as they brought both Aaron Ross and Tracy Porter for visits. Neither were signed, but Jason Allen was brought in the fold shortly after those visits. Adam Jones was subsequently re-signed and Terence Newman joined them shortly after. All of a sudden, the position group became so deep that we are beginning to wonder if the team will take a corner in the early rounds of the draft. Now, I'm not implying that any of those acquisitions are shut-down types, but it's solid depth and they bring veteran leadership. While it's still definitely possible that they will draft a youngster, it's the recent release of the NFL schedule that makes me look at these acquisitions in another positive light.
Related Article: The Must-Watch Bengals Games Of The 2012 Season And Their StorylinesAside from the obvious solution that these three acquisitions provide to the depth problem, there's a more specific purpose that they'll serve. When you look at the schedule, the Bengals not only face some daunting defenses, but also some formidable offenses. While the Bengals' defense wasn't necessarily a big picture problem last year, it could become one this season if the cornerback position wasn't addressed. Furthermore, if there was a weakness in the Bengals stout 2011 defensive unit, it was a lack of generating interceptions. Luckily, they managed to re-sign their team's leader in interceptions from last year in Reggie Nelson.
First take a look at within the division. The Steelers have three major receiving threats in Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. The Ravens have Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, and likely a high-pick rookie to replace Lee Evans. And, while the Browns don't have too much in the ways of a wide receiver threat, it's quite possible that multiple picks could be used this year at that position. Throw in the fact that each team has receiving tight ends in Pittsburgh's Heath Evans, Baltimore's Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, and Cleveland's Ben Watson and Evan Moore; and it makes a lot of sense to have as many able-bodied cover men as possible.
The Bengals also play a number of competitive teams outside of the division. The Super Bowl Champion New York Giants boast a strong wide receiving corps. A healthy Hakeem Nicks is a force, as is Victor Cruz. What makes this duo even more effective is the fact that they can swing Cruz inside to the slot and allow him to flourish much like Steve Smith used to do. Even though Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham has left for San Francisco, they still have Ramses Barden and will likely use a draft pick on another outside threat.
Staying in the NFC East, the Eagles have at least three viable receiving threats themselves in DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and tight end Brent Celek. The Washington Redskins' receiving corps has become suddenly scary with newly-acquired Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan and tight ends Fred Davis and Chris Cooley. And perhaps most difficult in the division, the Cowboys have multiple threats as well in Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten.
What's the point of pointing out all of these players? The popular phrase in the NFL nowadays is that it's a "passing league" and that a high premium has been placed on quarterbacks and wide receivers. Cornerback is another position that is being held in high regard around the league and the need for more than three corners who can cover is a must. More and more teams are employing four and five wide receiver sets and aside from pressuring the quarterback, covering those receivers is of utmost importance.
What's interesting about the recent influx of corner help is that we don't know how capable they are at covering the No.1 and possibly No.2 wideouts of opposing teams. It really all depends on the health of Hall. If he's able to begin the season and play close to the level that we've all become accustomed to, then there won't be much of an issue. But, if Hall isn't available and you push each one of these corners up a spot on the depth chart, one begins to wonder if the same level of coverage skills will be there because of the opposing wideouts--even with this accrued depth. This is where the argument of the need of an early round cornerback arises. But, that's another topic for another time.
Injuries are another thing that come up during a season and the team was bit by that bug last year. When Hall went down with the dreaded Achilles injury, the group wasn't the same. Jones filled in admirably for Hall in the later portion of the year, but he was rehabbing a neck injury himself and it was asking a lot to throw him into that role and expect miracles. Quite frankly, it's an unfortunate possibility that not all of these players will make it through the entire season. So, having six corners on the roster with five having a former first round pick designation definitely quells some fears that popped up around the end of the 2011 season.
The point is that for all of the criticism the team has received for signing so-called "washed up" veterans at the position, they've set themselves up pretty well for the short term. They are in a much better way with a group that was looking very bleak just a few short weeks ago, and while it wouldn't surprise me if the team drafted a cornerback early (nor would it surprise me if they didn't), they are poised to do what they need to against their 2012 opponents, thanks to these free agent acquisitions.