When the weather was warm and the season buzzing with anticipation prior to training camp, I pieced together a preview at the defensive-back position, feeling somewhat apprehensive. Who could blame me? I felt comfortable with the line and felt the linebackers were respectable enough to do their jobs, yet the backfield was a little concerning. Why was Cincinnati going to rely on a 34-year old veteran on a steep decline, and trust that Leon Hall would return and be effective after tearing his Achilles? Who was going to play safety alongside Reggie Nelson? Those were just a handful of the questions heading into training camp. Yet when the season was all said and done, the defensive backfield did an admirable job.
Leon Hall: Drafted in the first round of the 2007 NFL draft, Hall has been dealing with the cruel nature of comparison. Even though he was a first-round pick, he was never a true shutdown guy, Hall has established a productive career in the NFL that was jeopardized last November when he ruptured his Achilles against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Many did not expect Hall to be ready to participate in training camp. Hard work, dedication and focus enabled his eventual recovery and return.
Yet as the story is told about most major recoveries, Hall started the season rusty. His most notable blunder being the 52-yard reception to Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith during the Monday Night Football opener. Hall sat several weeks with a calf injury against Washington and Jacksonville, prior to settling down for the rest of the season. Eventually he rose to one of the top defenders on Mike Zimmer's top-ten defense, not only as a reliable cover corner, but a playmaker too. He noticeably shutdown Victor Cruz when Zimmer decided to move Hall around. His interception against the Philadelphia Eagles generated the momentum needed for a mediocre and flat Bengals team to secure a satisfying Thursday Night win. Hall beautifully read Heath Miller's route against the Steelers, intercepting Ben Roethlisberger's pass for a touchdown. Additionally Hall did not allow any receptions during the game, according to Pro Football Focus.
Eventually the team's top cornerback finished the season strong, which included scoring Cincinnati's lone touchdown against the Houston Texans. According to Pro Football Focus, this was Hall's best season since 2009. Not bad.
Terence Newman: Alright. Admission No. 1: It wasn't possible for Terence Newman to make the Dallas team after the stories of such a steep decline there. During his final season with the Cowboys, Newman put together three games where he allowed 100 yards receiving or more, including 174 yards in a week 17 loss to the Giants. That version of Newman never appeared in Cincinnati, holding players that he covered to no more than 81 yards in a game and nothing longer than 30.
Newman credited Zimmer for returning him to the basics of his technique and that ballooned into a sense of confidence for the former first-rounder. Additionally Zimmer motivated and complimented Newman during training camp, praising his heart and competitive nature. It's the true influence a coach can have on a veteran career, knowing how to get the most out of someone.
Newman has been known for baiting quarterbacks into making throws that would often burn him. Newman played the position more conservatively, despite intercepting Peyton Manning a couple of times. While he certainly is not a physical corner, Newman was by no means a liability against the run. Even though he's a free agent, mark him down for a second season in Cincinnati.
Adam Jones: Was Adam Jones the best corner in Cincinnati this season? One could certainly make the argument. One of Jones' biggest issues, at least on the field, has related to his durability and besides a small hamstring issue, the topic never surfaced.
Though Jones allowed a 60-yard touchdown reception to Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown in week 16, he did not allow a reception over 26 yards during any other game. While Jones continued to give up a good number of yards after the catch, he seemed to improve quite a bit in run support, producing a positive run defense grade, according to Pro Football Focus.
Dre Kirkpatrick: As soon as the season started, rookie Dre Kirkpatrick failed to alleviate any concerns from those that questioned the pick. Since the roster was deep enough to allow progressive development, there wasn't the expectation for immediate contribution. Yet it would have been nice to see actual development, instead of a season that was far more redshirt than rookie with injuries. Kirkpatrick fractured a bone in his knee while preparing for training camp, finally returning in November but was mainly a special teams player. He made two tackles on defense and two on special teams. He suffered a concussion on December 2nd against San Diego and was placed on Injured Reserve shortly thereafter.
Kirkpatrick likes to refer to himself as "swag". Swagger means to have a certain style and confidence about oneself. Now there's a certain chip on his shoulder, looking to prove doubters wrong next season. He'll have to, because doubters have more reason to doubt.
So what does Kirkpatrick do well, and how could he factor into next season? Simply put, there are always places for physical corners that tackle well on a football team. If Kirkpatrick can stay healthy and adapt comfortably into the defense, we will see more of him on the field, and not just for special teams.
Jason Allen: Jason Allen was signed to a two-year contract last year and we had expected him to play a big part on the 2012 team. We had expected him to play at all. He ended up taking only three snaps on defense. For one reason or another, mostly injuries, he never could get on the field. Don't be surprised if Cincinnati and Allen part ways in a few months.
Chris Lewis-Harris: The midseason signing and practice squad call-up played only 21 defensive snaps for the Bengals this season. Brandon Ghee and Shaun Prater will be back for training camp to battle for a spot on the team. Ghee was impressive before his camp injury.
What does the future hold for the cornerback position? It's cloudy, though somewhat optimistic. Will Kirkpatrick's knee finally be a benefit rather than a liability? Will Terence Newman keep drinking out of the fountain of youth? Though the team would like them back, it's still unknown if Newman and Jones will return. Expect the Bengals to consider drafting another corner in the first three rounds. CincyJungle editor, Anthony Cosenza, recently gave readers a look at a potential three-round mock draft, taking Florida State corner Xavier Rhodes in the first round one.
It could happen.