When the Bengals selected Dre Kirkpatrick in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft, it seemed that they had found their eventual replacement for Johnathan Joseph, whom they had lost before the 2011 season. However, after an injury plagued season, we still know very little about Kirkpatrick and what he's capable of in the NFL.
Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is somewhat in the same boat, but he has high hopes for Kirkpatrick in the upcoming season.
"I think he can play. I don't know where, when or how yet," Zimmer said last weekend during a break in the Combine. "We have two free agents ... I'd like to have them back but that doesn't mean Kirkpatrick isn't better than all of them. He could be the guy that's playing."
The two free agents that Zimmer is referring to are Adam Jones and Terence Newman, both of whom played extremely well in 2012. Newman was the team's starting cornerback opposite Leon Hall and Jones was likely the best third corner in the league. Re-signing them must be the team's priority right after they get defensive end Michael Johnson and offensive tackle Andre Smith back in the fold either on long-term deals or with the franchise tag.
With Newman, Jones and a healthy Kirkpatrick back on the field, the only missing piece for the Bengals secondary is a strong safety. After Reggie Nelson, the team's starting free safety, there's a significant drop off in production. The Bengals have somewhat ignored the position for a few years now and, due to the fact that there are multiple safeties with first-round grades, they could use the No. 21 overall pick on one. Texas' Kenny Vaccaro, considered the best safety in this year's draft class, has been mocked to the Bengals at No. 21 several times.
The Bengals already have an established front seven and they'll continue to have one as long as they re-sign their free agents. With the additional help at cornerback that Kirkpatrick can supply and a new strong safety, the Bengals could have one of the top two or three defenses in the league.