One of the biggest questions the Bengals face this year and into the 2017 offseason is what to do with Dre Kirkpatrick.
The 17th-overall pick out of Alabama in the 2012 NFL Draft has been an enigma up to this point in his pro career. After playing behind the likes of Terence Newman and Leon Hall for much of his first three NFL seasons, Kirkpatrick finally earned a starting spot last year thanks to the departure of Newman.
However, Kirkpatrick became a major liability in coverage as many teams made it a point to build their offensive game plan toward attacking him in coverage.
Most targeted CBs in the NFL:— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) February 10, 2016
Marcus Peters: 137
Dre Kirkpatrick: 112
Antwon Blake: 110
Malcolm Butler: 106
Ronald Darby: 105
Now the Bengals have to ask themselves how long of a leash they should give Kirkpatrick this coming season. After all, he's shown flashes of becoming a solid NFL corner, but he's also been far too prone to give up big plays that have really hurt a great defense.
That's a big reason why Pro Football Focus ranked the Bengals' cornerback unit as the 24th-overall unit entering the 2016 season.
23. Cincinnati Bengals
Top CBs: Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard
Key stat: Rookie cornerbacks have taken just 278 snaps for the Bengals since 2010.
The Bengals invest heavily in rookie corners, but rarely allow them to see the field in their first season—a trend that will need to change in 2016 if Dre Kirkpatrick repeats his 2015 form. Former first-round pick Darqueze Dennard must push Kirkpatrick (either to improve, or completely out of the starting lineup), while this year's top pick, William Jackson III, will look to buck the trend and see playing time as a rookie. Behind Adam Jones, there are plenty of questions, and the answer might just be youth.
Kirkpatrick's struggles and impending free agency in 2017 helped lead to the Bengals spending the 24th-overall pick in this year's draft on Houston corner William Jackson III. Thus far, Jackson has been making a lot of noise in offseason workouts while getting significant praise.
While the Bengals don't tend to play rookie corners with frequency, Kirkpatrick has struggled enough that the team may make an exception this year if Jackson has a really good showing in training camp and through the preseason.
The good thing is, many of Kirkpatrick's issues to this point have been things that are very correctable. Issues like not looking for the ball in coverage (see above photo) lead to easy pass interference calls or completed catches that he could have deflected. These issues have really plagued Kirkpatrick to this point in his career.
But the biggest issue for Kirkpatrick has been his tackling, or lack thereof. He was arguably the worst starting corner in the NFL for much of last season when it came to missed tackles. It's one thing for a defensive lineman or a linebacker to miss a tackle since there are often other guys in the box close enough to make the tackle.
A corner, however, rarely has that help as he's often left on an island while covering his receiver. Missing a tackle out on the boundary can lead to an easy extra 10+ yards for receivers, and that has happened far too often with Kirkpatrick to this point in his career.
To be fair, this was an area he improved upon as the 2015 season wore on and he got more comfortable being a full-time starter for the first time in his career. He also did so while playing through a shoulder injury significant enough that he needed offseason surgery that still has him sidelined into June.
As long as Kirkpatrick can get healthy and perform well in training camp and the preseason, he'll keep his starting spot for the first stretch of games to open the regular season.
However, he cannot afford to struggle as much as he did last season if he wants to keep his starting gig secured, not with an immense talent in Jackson waiting in the wings. I doubt Jackson is able to take Kirkpatrick's starting spot, but perhaps Jackson will be good enough as a rookie to take snaps away from Kirkpatrick and help lead to him not being re-signed next offseason.
Ideally, both Kirkpatrick and Jackson will perform well and be the starting boundary corners in the coming years after Adam Jones retires, assuming Darqueze Dennard sticks to the slot, where he's anticipated to play this year.
And again, the majority of Kirkpatrick's issues have been things that are very correctable. It wasn't any secret Kirkpatrick was a raw corner coming out of Alabama who would need a lot of work. It certainly didn't help matters that he missed most of his rookie year with a knee injury.
In other words, Kirkpatrick has a lot of room for growth and the potential to become a far better player than what we saw last year. Hopefully the veteran corner is able to reach his full potential this coming season.