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Bengals Roster Bubble Watch: Could Bengals’ young secondary become elite?

The Bengals defense has tallied at least 20 interceptions in each of the past three seasons. With Reggie Nelson gone, who will be the next man up?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-Minicamp Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Over the course of the last five seasons, the Bengals have drafted and re-signed the defensive backs they hope will compose the secondary for the long haul. Aside from the unit’s leader, a 2010 free agent acquisition, every player in the position group was drafted over the course of the past five years.

With Reggie Nelson off to Oakland and Leon Hall all but out the door, the Bengals will rely a secondary composed of a majority of young players for the first time in years. That Marvin Lewis, Duke Tobin and the Bengals’ front office were willing to part with two of the unit’s three veterans speaks volumes about the team’s confidence in its young players. Now it’s time for those players to prove their worth.

Secondary coaches: Kevin Coyle, Robert Livingston (assistant)

Returning from 2015 roster: Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard, Josh Shaw, Chris Lewis-Harris, George Iloka, Shawn Williams, Derron Smith

2016 additions: William Jackson III, Chykie Brown, Darius Hillary, Clayton Fejedelem, Jimmy Wilson, Floyd Raven


Adam Jones

Jones, who is by far the best member of the Bengals’ secondary, is the only starter in the unit who was not drafted by Cincinnati. The veteran had a career year in 2015, earning a Pro Bowl nod for his efforts. Among the league’s best return man, Jones also received first team All-Pro recognition in 2014. As the oldest player in the position group by a long shot, Jones aims to lead the secondary to new heights in 2016.

Dre Kirkpatrick

Entering his fifth year, Kirkpatrick has yet to play up to his first round Draft billing. However, it’s not too late for the former Alabama corner to prove his worth to Cincinnati. Kirkpatrick hasn’t been all bad in his Bengals tenure—he locked down DeAndre Hopkins and Antonio Brown last season, as well as making plays all over the field in the Bengals’ victory over the Rams, tallying 10 tackles and three pass deflections. While there’s still room for improvement, Kirkpatrick is still a lock for the roster—and while the Bengals drafted yet another first-round corner in 2016, they still hope the 2012 first-rounder can play well enough to stick around long-term. After all, Jones is 32-years-old and will need a successor at some point.

Darqueze Dennard

With Hall finally gone, the Bengals’ 2014 first-rounder figures to start—and see a lot of time—at the slot position. The former Michigan State Spartan has been banged up throughout his career, but he’s still only 24-years-old. Like Kirkpatrick, Dennard has shown flashes of immense potential, but he’ll need to put it all together on the field for the Bengals to consider keeping him around long-term, let alone try him out on the perimeter of the defense. Currently, Dennard is sidelined with an ankle injury but it’s unclear how long he’ll be out.

George Iloka

I fully expect Iloka to finally put together a Pro Bowl-caliber season in 2016. Don’t get me wrong—the former fifth-round pick already played at a Pro Bowl level in 2014, flying all over the field in a season where he was, in my opinion, far and away the best coverage safety in the NFL. Coming off a 2015 season in which he struggled to stay healthy—and without Nelson on the field—the 6-foot-4 specimen has a lot to prove. But the Bengals clearly believe in him, as they rewarded him with a $30 million deal over the offseason. The oldest safety on the roster who has played at least one game in a Bengals uniform, Iloka will likely take a larger leadership role in the secondary this upcoming season.

Shawn Williams

The Bengals made a risky move in signing Williams, who only has four career starts to his name, to a long-term extension, but they seem to be confident he’s the safety they believed he could be upon selecting him in the third round of the 2013 Draft. Williams memorably picked off Ben Roethlisberger in the Bengals’ victory over the Steelers last season, and he added another interception in Cincinnati’s win at San Francisco. The Bengals defense has tallied at least 20 interceptions in each of the last three seasons, but the team’s four projected starters (excluding Jones) have only tallied 14 total picks their collective careers. If the Bengals can maintain a high volume of interceptions in 2016, Williams will likely have a lot to do with it.

William Jackson III

The Bengals took a lot of people by surprise when they selected Jackson in the first round of the 2016 Draft, but in retrospect, it makes a lot of sense when considering the team’s long-term plans. If things go right in the secondary, Kirkpatrick and Jackson will start on the perimeter long-term while Dennard works out of the slot. If things go wrong, Jones might have to start longer than the Bengals had intended, and Jackson will likely start opposite him. Either way, the Bengals really need their 2016 first-rounder to capitalize on his potential and make an impact.

Unfortunately, Jackson just suffered an injury that will keep him out for potentially all of his rookie season. That’s pretty bad news for Jackson, but, the Bengals will survive without him on the field in 2016, if that’s how his injury plays out.

Josh Shaw

Shaw, the Bengals’ fourth-round pick in 2015, is the most versatile member of Cincinnati’s secondary and a sneaky impressive player. He only played 116 defensive snaps last season, but he was a pretty impactful player in relief of the Bengals’ injured corners. The former USC defensive back will likely be the Bengals’ new and improved Swiss Army Knife, playing several different positions in the secondary, similar to what Tyrann Mathieu and Malcolm Jenkins do for their respective teams and what former Bengals defensive back Chris Crocker did in his Cincinnati tenure. If Shaw pans out, the Bengals will have plenty of options for the young corner in the future.

Derron Smith

Smith fell to the sixth round of the 2015 Draft, likely due to his smaller stature. But the Bengals, who have reaped the benefits of undersized players—especially on defense (i.e. Geno Atkins and Adam Jones)—selected him, and fans went nuts. If Smith were a few inches taller or a tad quicker, he could’ve potentially been a Day 1 or 2 pick last year. Smith has yet to see any meaningful playing time, but he could potentially play a key role in 2016, as he’s the first backup to both safety positions. If Williams or Iloka fail to meet the expectations they’ll be held to after signing long-term deals, Smith will likely get a chance to prove he’s a capable replacement. More realistically, Smith could potentially get a shot at playing time if either of the starting safeties miss time due to injuries. Smith might not see a ton of time, but he’ll play a very important roles this season.


Clayton Fejedelem

With Taylor Mays out of the picture, the Bengals’ seventh-round pick figures to be the team’s top competitor for the fourth safety position. The former walk-on safety has defied odds and surpassed expectations at nearly every level of football, and he’ll look to continue the trend at the NFL level. As long as he can stay healthy and make some plays in the preseason, the former Illinois defensive back should be able to latch onto the Bengals’ roster. If he, for whatever reason, somehow doesn’t make the roster, he’ll be a lock for the practice squad.

Strong Bubble

Chris Lewis-Harris

Lewis-Harris is only this low simply because there’s a slim chance the Bengals choose to carry five corners on the roster. With a much younger position group, it’s possible the coaches believe their young guys can stay healthy and would rather utilize a valuable roster spot on a player at a more competitive position. After all, the Bengals were able to stash Lewis-Harris on their practice squad for a brief period of time last season. He’ll more than likely make the Bengals’ roster this year.

Jimmy Wilson

Wilson, who has 28 career starts to his name in a five-year career, was very recently signed by the Bengals in a move that actually makes a ton of sense. Prior to Wilson’s arrival, Cincinnati’s secondary only had one veteran player. He might not make the roster, but Wilson could provide a veteran presence on the team which the Bengals staff would greatly appreciate. It will take a standout preseason, highlighted by quality special teams play, for Wilson to make the roster. That being said, it’s very possible he makes the team. Perhaps the Bengals, who have less depth at safety than corner, choose to keep him over Lewis-Harris. Or maybe Wilson doesn’t last at all; only time will tell.

Long shots

Chykie Brown

Brown, a Lombardi trophy-winning corner who made a start and tallied five pass defenses in the Raven’s 2012 Super Bowl run, will be severely impacted by the fact that he has lost practice squad eligibility. It would take a massively impressive preseason for the corner to earn a shot at Cincinnati’s roster. After all, Brown didn’t play for a NFL team in 2015. That being said, as I always say, anything is possible. Brown has Super Bowl experience and was at one point in his career a valuable rotation player. With four years of NFL playing experience under his belt, he’s an interesting player to say the least.

Floyd Raven

Raven, who spent his rookie preseason in Cincinnati last year, is back for another shot in the Queen City. The safety tallied an interception last preseason but didn’t do enough to warrant a spot on the roster or practice squad. Raven eventually made his way to the Patriots’ practice squad in late October, but he was never promoted to the team’s 53-man roster. If Raven can impress on special teams and make a few plays in the preseason, he’ll be a strong practice squad candidate.

Darius Hillary

A Cincinnati product, Hillary is living the NFL dream by playing for his hometown team. His father, Ira, played three seasons for the Bengals in the 80’s. Hillary is pretty slight, but he was highly regarded by Wisconsin fans after finishing his college career. The corner impressed in his pro day, recording a 4.46 40-yard dash and a 33.5” inch vertical. He’ll be a strong practice squad candidate if he can make an impact on special teams and turn a head or two in preseason action.