As the Bengals get a month-long break before training camp opens in late July, they still have a key player sitting on the free agent market.
Leon Hall is clearly past his prime, and while he may have just a year or two left in his NFL tank, that doesn't mean he still can't be very useful to the Bengals. The 18th-overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft is, after all, already one of the best corners to ever wear Bengals stripes.
Over his first four seasons from 2007-10, Hall picked off 18 passes and deflect another 71 as he and Johnathan Joseph became the NFL's best cornerback tandem. But since Hall signed a four-year, $39-million contract extension in 2011, he has suffered two torn Achilles tendons and intercepted just eight passes during the last five seasons.
That second tear has also led to a sharp decline in Hall's play since then. He's had his moments in both of the past two seasons, but has often given up his fair share of big plays that a guy making $9+ million per season should not be allowing.
Seeing Hall paid so much while giving up too many critical plays is also why Bengals fans have soured on him a lot during the past year. Sure, he's not someone you want as a top-three corner on your team, but that doesn't mean his value to the Bengals isn't still high.
Earlier this week, reports surfaced that Hall was close to making a final decision, perhaps in the next week. That came after another report suggesting the Bengals were still in the running for his services, though I doubt that Cincinnati wants him as 'just' a cornerback.
If Hall does return to the Bengals, taking on a bigger role at safety looks likely with Dre Kirkpatrick, Adam Jones, Josh Shaw, Darqueze Dennard and first-round pick William Jackson III likely to occupy most of the snaps at corner.
Safety is another story, however. While Shawn Williams and George Iloka look to be the starters at the position, only Derron Smith, Floyd Raven and seventh-round rookie Clayton Fejedelem are backing them up. There's also Taylor Mays if you count him as a safety, though he'll be out for the first four games of the season serving a suspension. Smith rarely saw the field last year while Raven looks more like a camp body.
The possibility of Hall moving to safety has been tested at times over the past two years. He worked at safety in training camp last year and occasionally got snaps there, so it's not like he has to come in and start from scratch at the position.
One of Hall's best attributes throughout his career, even as he's aged, has been his read and react skills. At corner, that's good, but he also needs speed and quickness to stay on his man.
But at safety, the position is more reliant on reading the play and reacting, instead of staying with one particular man for almost every play. We've seen guys like Charles Woodson move to safety late in their careers and actually perform better than they were at corner beforehand. I see the potential for Hall to be much better in this kind of role if he returns to the Bengals.
And we've seen how important that third safety can be in the Bengals' defense, so perhaps Hall could return and still play significant snaps in 2016, even if it's not as an actual starter. Guys like Chris Crocker have played key roles as Swiss Army Knife-type players, so who's to say Hall can't do the same.
Plus, Kirkpatrick and Dennard have been injury-prone early in their pro careers, Jones turns 33 in September and Jackson is a rookie for a team that rarely plays rookies, so it's also possible Hall could see significant snaps at corner as well.
And let's face it: Dennard has more games missed due to injury (8) than combined interceptions (1) and pass deflections (3). Hall passed that number in just his seventh game as a rookie. I can't say I feel comfortable with him being the main slot corner next year without a quality backup. Shaw played well there in limited snaps, but not enough to make you comfortable he'd hold the fort down if thrust into a starting role.
Even Pro Football Focus isn't high on the Bengals' current group of corners. PFF has Cincinnati's cornerback crew ranked just 23rd in the league. You'd have to think the Bengals would be slightly higher with Hall as even a backup.
After all, Hall finished as PFF's 33rd-ranked corner last season. You also can't forget that Hall played a lot on the boundary earlier in his career and did so at a high level. If either Jones or Kirkpatrick were to be injured, the Bengals could put Hall on the boundary, or stick him in the slot and have Dennard on the boundary.
Between being a backup corner and safety for the Bengals, it's easy to see how Hall could still have a big role in this defense, which explains why Cincinnati is still interested in bringing him back. More insurance at both spots is a wise move for the Bengals to make if Hall can be had for a relatively small deal.
Hall owes it to the Bengals to sign a team-friendly deal after the way they stuck with him as his play decreased while his salary made him a sure-fire cap casualty for many NFL teams. Loyalty has been a theme of the Bengals', and Hall should honor the team's loyalty, should they want him back in Cincinnati this season.