On paper, the Bengals have one of the most imposing secondaries in the NFL. Both the cornerback and safety groups are littered with talent and four corners are former first round picks. While some of the players set to step into starting or heavy rotational roles have a solid track record of production, a handful are still youngsters looking to live up to the hype.
Dre Kirkpatrick is one of those players. Both the Bengals and Kirkpatrick have been patient in the corner's previous four seasons, as he has battled injuries and being buried behind veterans on the depth chart. He finally stepped into a full-time starting role in 2015 after a couple of years of improvement, but last year just didn't net the results most hoped for. It wasn't an all-around poor season, but a lack of big plays, which marked the earlier years of his career, were noticeably absent. This needs to change in 2016. Kirkpatrick comes in at No. 2 on our list of the Bengals players with the most to prove in 2016.
Why he makes the list:
Contract Year with Big Money: After owning a cap hit just north of $2.74 million last year, Kirkpatrick's hit to the team jumps to $7.5 million because of the team exercising the fifth-year option on his rookie deal. They might be looking to extend him this offseason, but as it stands, Kirkpatrick is in a "prove it year". If he can't create more turnovers than he did last year, the Bengals might be inclined to rely on other talented corners beyond this year.
The Surrounding Talent: With Cincinnati selecting William Jackson III in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, it now brings four former first round corners into the fold. With the team also liking last year's fourth round selection, Josh Shaw, it begs the question of how long the leash is with Kirkpatrick. Knowing how Marvin Lewis and the Bengals operate, it's likely pretty long, but competition is definitely heavy at the position.
What he needs to prove:
Big-Play Ability: In 2013-2014, Kirkpatrick had six total interceptions, with two returned for touchdowns in backup rotational duty. Yet, as a first-time full starter in 2015, he failed to create any turnovers. While it didn't cripple the defense by any means and he did have an admirable 16 passes defended, having a corner with the ability to switch the momentum of a game at a moment's notice is huge. Adam Jones has a bit of the trait, though he mostly uses it on special teams, Darqueze Dennard is going to be playing more of the slot next year and Jackson will likely be taking a backseat to the three of them. So, the best chance for for Kirkpatrick to make a case to stick around in Cincinnati is with the big plays and pick sixes.
Consistency: It seems to be a little bit contradictory to the need for big plays, as few NFL corners are the complete package, but Kirkpatrick was a No. 17 overall selection in the Draft, so expectations are relatively high. Hopefully, Kirkpatrick's injury issues are behind him, as he has only missed two games the past three seasons, but his play can be a bit feast-or-famine-like. Kirkpatrick actually battled through a shoulder injury for much of last season -- but didn't miss any time -- and left the Wild Card game with an injury and the stadium that night on crutches. He also isn't currently taking part in 11-on-11s during OTAs, though he is participating in other drills.
Kirkpatrick had pretty outstanding games against the Rams (10 tackles, three passes defended) and the Texans (three tackles, three passes defended) last year, but there were times in big games where he didn't make an impact. He had just two tackles against the Cardinals, and didn't have a pass defended in two of the three games against the Steelers (including the playoffs). Like the rest of the team, he needs to step up in the spotlighted games against stiff competition.