The first three years of Dre Kirkpatrick's NFL career have seen him mostly riding the bench behind more established veterans.
Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones have occupied nearly all of the snaps at cornerback since Kirkpatrick became the 17th-overall pick out of Alabama in the 2012 NFL Draft. Now, Newman is gone and both Hall and Jones will become free agents next year while also being older than 30.
So far in training camp, Kirkpatrick has been running with the starters as a boundary corner opposite Jones with Hall lining up in the slot. Kirkpatrick knows a starting spot and more prominent role in the Bengals secondary is there for him to take. Earlier this offseason, Kirkpatrick made a strong statement saying the starting spot vacated by Newman is already his.
He apparently stills believes that after stating he not only wanted to be a Bengals captain this week, but also said he wants to be the face of the Bengals franchise, writes ESPN's Coley Harvey:
"I don't want to [just] be no starter," Kirkpatrick said. "I want to be a leader, man. I want to wear a 'Captain C' on my jersey."
And from Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson:
"When you think about the Ravens, everybody in their book is going to think about Ray Lewis,’ said Kirkpatrick before Monday’s practice. "When you think of the Patriots you think about Tom Brady. When you think about the Bengals I want you to think of Dre Kirkpatrick."
Kirkpatrick isn't just talking the talk. He's walking the walk while teammates and coaches are taking notice.
"He's passionate about the game. He's very intense," Darqueze Dennard said. "Guys can lean towards that. You have the Ray Lewises, and on this team, the Vontaze Burficts. He's a big rah-rah guy and he can get people going, as well. I see qualities like that in Dre."
Helping others is something Kirkpatrick loves doing both with the Bengals and with his fellow Alabama players, as he told our own Rebecca Toback this offseason. "I eat, breathe, sleep football down there with those guys, not to mention the mentor factor really inspires me to be a better pro," Kirkpatrick said. "The younger college guys look up to us as players that have gone through the process and are making an impact. It gives me just as much motivation as they get from the pros that come back to UA."
Being a leader doesn't just mean being one of the best players. It also involves helping fellow teammates, something Kirkpatrick is doing as he helps coach up the rookies.
After Josh Shaw was turned by one corner, Dre Kirkpatrick pulled him to the side and coached him on technique.#Bengals— Coley Harvey (@ColeyHarvey) August 3, 2015
It looks as though Kirkpatrick will be looking to make a push at building his value as a leader on the Bengals this season.
Co-defensive backs coach Vance Joseph likes what he's seen of Kirkpatrick this year, but he also knows there's a lot of work left to be done before Kirkpatrick even proves he's a starter in this league. That's the case when you've played in just 35 career games with just five starts.
"He’s playing hard, he’s playing smart,’ Joseph said. "So far I give him a B-minus because it takes consistency and longevity to prove you’re a starter in this league."
While Kirkpatrick played only 283 defensive snaps in 2014, his impact on the defense was obvious and a key reason why the Bengals were able to squeak into the playoffs for the fourth straight year. In the six games during which he played at least 23 snaps, the Bengals allowed just 18.2 points per game vs. the 25.4 points allowed in games he played fewer than 23 snaps. Kirkpatrick's 1.6 pass coverage grade from Pro Football Focus was the third best of any Bengals defensive back.
It's clear Kirkpatrick can be the kind of player who makes a positive impact on the Bengals' defense. What remains to be see is if he can do it in a full-time starting role, but it's also clear confidence won't be the issue.