The Bengals’ disappointing season was not the fault of one player or unit on the team. Instead, it was a combination of many issues, ranging from a Wild Card hangover, personnel losses on the roster and coaching ranks, injuries and more.
One area of the team that saw significant turnover in 2016 was the defensive back unit. Co-defensive back coaches Vance Joseph and Mark Carrier both left the Bengals last offseason. Joseph left for a defensive coordinator job with the Dolphins and Carrier to explore other opportunities (he does not currently have an NFL coaching job).
Cornerback Leon Hall left for the Giants in free agency and safety Reggie Nelson left for the Raiders. The Bengals added another first round cornerback in the NFL Draft, but he was injured before even the preseason began and spent the season on Injured Reserve.
Darqueze Dennard was expected to take over Hall’s role in the slot this season, but a preseason injury led to Josh Shaw proving his worth and taking over that role for the majority of the season. Dennard played sparingly in the slot, but made it clear he’s better suited for a boundary role.
Shawn Williams, who was a backup in 2015, replaced Nelson and had a solid season, with some games better than others. For a first time starter, he wasn’t bad and some of the team’s veterans were less impressive than the first year starter’s.
Pro Football Focus ranked every NFL team’s secondary, and they graded Williams as the Bengals’ best member of the secondary this season and ranked the unit 16th overall. In the eyes of PFF, the Bengals’ defensive back unit was completely average, considering there are 32 teams in the league.
16. Cincinnati Bengals (29)
Top overall grade: S Shawn Williams, 80.6 (No. 32)
Top coverage grade: S George Iloka, 79.2 (No. 31)
Top run-defense grade: S Shawn Williams, 79.5 (No. 27)
Most snaps: CB Adam Jones, 1,058
Cincinnati’s secondary wasn’t nearly as good as it was in 2015, but it wasn’t a major issue, either. Only No. 4 cornerback Darqueze Dennard earned a below-average grade on the season, as he allowed an 86 percent completion percentage into his coverage. However, no one else really graded much above-average either. The Bengals’ highest-graded played turned out to be Shawn Williams in his first year as a starter, as he took over for the departed Reggie Nelson (Oakland). Dre Kirkpatrick also played better as the season wore on; he finished with the eighth-lowest yards per cover snap allowed for cornerbacks. Outside of Adam Jones, though, the Bengals have a relatively young secondary that could potentially work its way back up the rankings in the near future.
Dennard’s future with the Bengals is unclear. Entering his fourth year in the NFL, we can only hope he improves and reaches the expectations set for him when he was drafted in Round 1 of the 2014 NFL Draft. Dennard finished as PFF’s 96th ranked cornerback and the worst defensive back on the team. This offseason, the Bengals will need to decide if they want to pick up his fifth year option, but has he really shown enough to warrant that? Dre Kirkpatrick played on his fifth year option in 2016 and was paid just less than $8 million. Speaking of, Kirkpatrick is now set to hit free agency.
Williams graded out as the best player among the group, ranking 32nd among all safeties. That certainly isn’t great, but is better than any other Bengals defensive back finished among their respective positions.
The Bengals have three first round cornerbacks who played this season and another who was injured before it began. With that in mind, ranking 16th in the NFL is far from acceptable. This unit needs to improve next season, which will hopefully happen with the help of Jackson playing, Williams entering his second year as a full-time starter, and the coaches having a year of experience in Cincinnati, working with these players and developing chemistry among the unit.
There likely won’t be many personnel changes among the unit this offseason, with only Kirkpatrick becoming a free agent in March, and his re-signing being a high priority. That’s a positive.
How do you see this group improving to become better than average in 2017?