Since the duo of Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph broke up after the 2010 season, the Bengals have been scrambling to put the pieces back together--mostly with battle-tested veterans. Adam Jones, Nate Clements and Terence Newman all filled in admirably as band-aids over the past four seasons, especially since they were tossed on the scrap heap by other teams, but Cincinnati has invested a couple of recent first round picks to emulate the success of the Hall/Joseph duo of the mid and late-2000s.
Dre Kirkpatrick was the first of two first round picks in 2012 by the Bengals after the Carson Palmer trade, but has battled injuries and being passed over by veterans for playing time. He started to prove his worth becoming one of the best gunners in the NFL on punt coverage and coming up with occasional big plays on defense. His coming out party could be considered last year's huge Monday Night Football victory over the Denver Broncos. In the game, Kirkpatrick had two interceptions off of Peyton Manning, one being a game and basically postseason-clinching pick-six.
Darqueze Dennard, Kirkpatrick's fellow first round corner who was drafted in 2014, made our breakout list for the second year in a row at No.4. That ranking was not only predicated on Dennard's talent, but an increased role in the Bengals defense in 2015. The same reasoning is being used for Kirkpatrick at No.3.
Why He Makes The List:
A Dedicated Offseason Training Program: For those who follow Kirkpatrick on any social media platforms, you would have seen Kirkpatrick devoting himself to intensive training and upping of his mental focus as he prepares to be a starter for the first time in his NFL career. This was also evident in a recent interview that he had with our own Rebecca Toback. There have not been any reports of significant weight gain or loss, but that doesn't matter much if he has been honing the nuances of the position. If what we have seen and heard are any indication, he looks ready.
Glowing Reports: Most of the media covering minicamps have noted Kirkpatrick's progress this season. Sure, there was a semi-viral post of Marvin Jones beating him on a deep ball, but even Geoff Hobson notes a difference. Speaking to us on our Inside The Jungle Podcast, Hobson noted that Dennard was more consistent, but Kirkpatrick's set of length and speed will be benefitting the defense. Hobson also noted that the double moves and other fake outs that he has fallen victim to as a young corner have seemed to have diminished under the tutelage of defensive backs coach, Vance Joseph.
If Marvin Lewis wants a reincarnation of the Hall/Joseph cornerback tandem, he definitely could have them in Kirkpatrick/Dennard. The latter being the sound technician and solid pro like Hall, while the sometime-gambling Kirkpatrick emulating the big-play prone Joseph. Both will need to take huge strides in 2015 to create a formidable duo, as has seemingly been the case thus far.
Last year, the defensive backs were the glue of a defensive unit that struggled because of inconsistent play and injuries. The once proud defensive front had trouble getting after the quarterback in 2014, but the secondary held their ground well, creating turnovers and providing coverage for a long time, by NFL play duration standards. With a line that appears to have been improved on paper, the young defensive backs could be the beneficiaries.