We have reached the cornerback portion of our training camp previews. The cornerback position will certainly challenge the receiver position for the best training camp position battle. The Bengals only kept four corners last season, but it would not be a surprise to see them keep five this year. Those competing at the corner position include Leon Hall, Nate Clements, Adam Jones,Dre Kirkpatrick, Jason Allen, Terence Newman, Brandon Ghee, and Shaun Prater. We can realistically expect five of those eight to make the cut. The question is, which of the five? The following predictions are just educated guesses as to what the team will do.
Starting RCB- Leon Hall: Many expect Hall to be ready to participate in training camp, after suffering a torn Achilles during a home loss to Pittsburgh last season. If Hall is ready to go, he will likely be starting when the Bengals open the season in Baltimore. Hall may not be as effective early on, as returning from an Achilles injury can often take even longer than a year. Hall was solid during the first nine games last season before his injury. Hall struggled against the run for the most part, as Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of -1.8. He was much better against the pass, receiving a grade of 2.0. The secondary certainly struggled when Hall went down last season, so it would be a huge lift if he was starting on Monday Night Football in Baltimore.
Starting LCB- Nate Clements: Clements' name has repeatedly been brought up as a salary cap casualty candidate. He is due to make over $4 million this year and will be 33 near the end of the season. Clements also struggled against the pass last year, receiving a -5.7 score. The only corner to have a lower grade on the team was Kelly Jennings. With all that being said, I expect Clements to be starting opposite Hall this season. He actually outplayed my expectations last season. He was great against the run, earning a score of 4.7. The Bengals also are not in a position where they are struggling for salary cap space. Clements also is a valuable leader on defense. He had to learn Mike Zimmer's defense later than what would have been preferred, due to the lockout. He was the glue that held the secondary together when Hall was put on Injured Reserve. He might have to earn his spot during training camp, but I would not expect him to have much trouble. A full offseason in Zimmer's defense will help his cause.
Nickelback- Dre Kirkpatrick: I expect the rookie Kirkpatrick to earn this job in training camp. Kirkpatrick is a big and physical corner, capable of playing the run and the pass at a high level. Playing in the nickel will allow Kirkpatrick to get on the field early, without having the pressure of starting. In a pass heavy league, having a good nickel back is a must. He will have to battle Adam Jones, Terence Newman, and Jason Allen for the spot. If he can learn Zimmer's defense, there should not be much holding Kirkpatrick back. He has an advantage over Newman and Allen, as he is faster and more athletic. His advantage over Jones is that the Bengals may want to use Jones less on defense and more as a punt returner.
Backup- Adam Jones: As previously stated, I expect Jones to grab the punt return job during training camp and the preseason. He said that he wants it, and he certainly has done well with it in the past. Jones would seemingly play less on defense if he wins the punt return position. This would be due to the risk of injury, as he has a history of injuries. He will still get some time on the field this season, possibly in a nickel role. The thing that I have been impressed with most has nothing to do with playing football. Jones recently spoke at the NFL's Rookie Symposium, warning the league's newest players against starting their career's on the wrong foot. Kevin Zeitler, Mohamed Sanu, and Marvin Jones were especially appreciative of what Jones said. Is it possible that a new life off the field could mean a new life on the field? While it seems like Jones has been around forever, he is only 28 years old. While many remember Jones getting burnt for a touchdown by Andre Johnson in the playoff game, Jones can still provide some spark. That spark could come from intercepting a pass, causing a fumble, or returning a punt back for six.
Backup/ Safety- Jason Allen: I think Mike Zimmer will use the former first round pick in many different ways. Allen will lineup at different corner spots, while also playing some safety. The uncertainty at the strong safety position will be used as an advantage for Allen. Lining up in different spots will at least cause the defense to take notice of Allen. Allen has struggled at safety during his career, but he certainly offers the versatility that Zimmer seems to covet. Allen, who recently turned 29, has 15 career interceptions in seven seasons, establishing a career high four last season. Allen, another big corner, has the ability to cause turnovers. The ability to do that and to play some safety will help Allen make the team.
Cut- Terence Newman: Newman has experience with Zimmer, and Zimmer knows what Newman is all about. Zimmer seems to still like Newman, recently saying:
""I like him," Zimmer said. "I can't figure out what was wrong with him. I've been watching seven days now."
While it may seem that Newman has a guaranteed spot on the team because of his relationship with Zimmer, that could not be further from the case. Zimmer and Marvin Lewis are going to keep the guys that give them the best chance to win, and Newman may not be one of those guys. He has struggled in Dallas, especially last season. Newman blames his past troubles on bad habits. Newman, 33 years old, says that he feels good:
"I feel really good," he said. "I feel like I'm 26-and-a-half. I feel like I can still run. I feel like I'm still quick. I just have to refine some things. I got in a couple of bad habits over the last couple of years."
If anyone can change those bad habits and make Newman what he used to be, it's Zimmer. But do not expect Zimmer to keep Newman if he is not performing. In the end, it may come down to Clements vs Newman for the last corner spot on the team. Newman would be cheaper, but Clements just has more to offer. Regardless of what happens, I am excited to see Newman in training camp.
Cut- Brandon Ghee: According to reports, this former third round pick has been impressive in OTA's. Ghee is competing against six former first round picks to make the team. But making the team is not Ghee's only intention. Ghee wants to start:
"I’m not just competing for a spot – I’m trying to play," said Ghee. "I’m trying to earn a starting position on this team."
You have to admire the competitiveness in Ghee. If Gheecan continue to improve into training camp, he has a shot to make the team. New defensive backs coach Mark Carrier likes what he sees in Ghee:
"The reason why he’s here is we see the potential," said Carrier. "Now – especially going into your third year which is kind of the year where you sink or swim – this is his chance to blossom."
Carrier is right, it is time to sink or swim for Ghee. I do not expect him to beat out the likes of Adam Jones or Jason Allen for a spot. But if someone gets hurt or struggles to learn Zimmer's scheme, Ghee could win a spot.
Practice Squad- Shaun Prater: Prater was a fifth round pick from Iowa. Many questioned this pick, as the Bengals certainly have enough depth at corner. However, many of these corners are on one year deals. The Bengals saw enough talent in Prater to harvest him for a season. The thinking is that Prater will spend a year on the practice squad and then possibly compete for a nickel job next season. The Bengals also hope that Prater is not plucked off the practice squad by another team this season, much like Dezmon Briscoe was snatched by Tampa Bay. Prater has been known as a solid corner without many ball skills. He will have the opportunity to refine his skills over the upcoming season and then work to be involved in nickel and dime packages in 2013.
One thing that Lewis always looks for is the ability to play special teams. If any of the above players can show that they have value there, they will have an advantage, although many of them do not have experience there. Six former first round picks competing for spots will be fun to watch in training camp. Hopefully everyone can stay healthy so that no one loses their job to injury. Now that you have seen my likely crazy predictions, who do you think will make the team?