The Bengals' secondary has been among the NFL's best in recent years, and they could remain at the top of the rankings for the foreseeable future.
Though cornerbacks Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones have been instrumental in the secondary's strong play, Newman is now gone and both Jones and Hall are in contract years while being over the age of 30. Their time as impact players in the NFL is winding down, but two young, talented and hungry corners are waiting in the wings to replace them.
The transition from the veteran cornerbacks to Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick could happen as soon as this year with the way each of them are performing in training camp thus far. Dennard, the No. 24-overall pick in the 2014 draft, now enters his second year with hopes of earning more playing time after playing sparingly as a rookie.
Dennard is trying to show in training camp that a starting spot should be his for the taking. As safety George Iloka said via the Cincinnati enquirer, "Darqueze has been ballin. If he isn't going to say it, I'll say it for him."
A player's second year in the NFL can be a turning point simply because the player is able to see what it takes to be the best they can possibly be in the NFL. For Dennard, one of his biggest learning points as a rookie was how to stay in NFL shape, as defensive backs coach Vance Joseph put it:
"He came back in the spring in great shape," Joseph said. "He's in great shape now. He's probably 80 percent better than he was as a rookie. As a rookie, he wasn't in great shape. He was just a young kid trying to figure it out. He's figuring it out and competing to start as a corner for us."
Mohamed Sanu also told Cincy Jungle this spring that Dennard was the defensive player impressing him most in OTAs.
While Dennard may be seeing the flip switch in his second year, it's taken just a bit longer for that same switch to flip for Dre Kirkpatrick. After playing in just 472 snaps through his first 24 games, Kirkpatrick finally began seeing the light midway through the 2014 season, leading him to become a vital part of the secondary down the stretch. Kirkpatrick would play 218 snaps during Cincinnati's final seven games with a 1.3 grade from Pro Football Focus during that span.
That was a drastic improvement from his -2.6 grade during his first seven games and his -9.4 grade in all of 2013. Kirkpatrick has parlayed his late-season rise in 2014 into a great showing in training camp thus far. He's been routinely praised as one of, if not the best defensive back on the field through five practices.
Dre Kirkpatrick had an awesome day today. Through five days of camp he's looked like the team's number one corner by far.— Brennen Warner (@BrennenWarner) August 4, 2015
Dre Kirkpatrick has had a really good day. Just broke up a goal-line pass to Denarius Moore. Kirkpatrick made a great break on ball #Bengals— Coley Harvey (@ColeyHarvey) August 4, 2015
Dre Kirkpatrick just had a good read on an INT. Andy Dalton was a little short on pass to A.J. Green. Dre/A.J. good battles today #Bengals— Coley Harvey (@ColeyHarvey) August 4, 2015
Kirkpatrick knows a starting job is there for the taking with Newman now gone, leaving a vacancy at one of the two boundary corner spots. As ESPN's Coley Harvey writes, Kirkpatrick wants to take it and make the Bengals proud of him earning it:
"Man, I just want to make this team happy," Kirkpatrick said. "Now that I'm getting my shot and getting my opportunity, I'm just leaving everything out on the field. I'm just approaching it like a game every day."
Dennard and Kirkpatrick impressing in training camp is a very good sign for not just the Bengals' 2015 season, but the future of their secondary as well. Dennard will be signed through 2018 if his fifth-year option is picked up. Kirkpatrick already had his fifth year option exercised to keep him under contract through 2016, with Cincinnati working to extend him beyond that.
As long as Dennard and Kirkpatrick keep focused on the task at hand, the future of the Bengals' secondary looks to be in good hands.