The Cincinnati Bengals have a unique problem at the cornerback position. Despite spending three first round picks at the position in the last six years, the position looked unbalanced in 2016 and appeared to need a tune-up throughout the year. With rookie first round pick William Jackson III missing the entire season with a pectoral injury, Darqueze Dennard struggling in the 15 games he played, and Adam Jones showing his age (in addition to dealing with pending legal charges), the Bengals are getting to the point where the position is looking extremely volatile.
Luckily, the Bengals have a solid, young player in Dre Kirkpatrick to stabilize the position while the team fixes the other issues. That is, unless they are unable to re-sign him this offseason. The Bengals preferring to re-sign their own free agents as opposed to bringing in new talent is a good indication they’d want to re-sign Kirkpatrick. But a consistent, young starter who has avoided major injury throughout his career is sure to be a hot item on the open market.
The Bengals definitely do not want to lose the player who is arguably their only stabilizing force at the cornerback position. But, has he done enough for the Bengals to justify paying him the amount of money he will attract with a more desperate team in free agency?
66 games played (34 games started) in 5 seasons: 148 tackles, 9 interceptions, 2 touchdowns, 1 fumble recovery, 41 pass deflections, 1.0 sacks
2016 season stats
15 games played (14 games started): 35 tackles, 3 interceptions, 10 pass deflections (Note: the one game he played and didn’t start was just the Bengals wanting to give Dennard a (very) brief opportunity on the boundary.)
Case against re-signing Kirkpatrick
Kirkpatrick has been a stabilizing force at the cornerback position for the last two years. And before that, he was a nice plug and play option behind a great deal of depth. That much is difficult to argue. But, he also has seen some struggles and extreme inconsistency during his time in Cincinnati. One day he’s intercepting Peyton Manning for a touchdown in what turned out to be a huge win for the Bengals in the 2014 season, the next he’s letting wide receivers walk all over him and finishing the very next season as one of Pro Football Focus’ lowest rated cornerbacks (38.8 in 2015).
However, despite all of that, Kirkpatrick has managed to keep hold of a starting position and showed notable improvement in 2016. He might not be enough to hold down the Bengals’ cornerback position by himself, but he improved enough that another team might pay him a very large amount of money to serve as a band-aid for their depleted secondary. The Bengals are smarter than that and should avoid the trap of overpaying for a cornerback who has never made the Pro Bowl, been an All-Pro team, or consistently looked great for a full season.
Argument for re-signing Kirkpatrick
Kirkpatrick might not be the most consistent player on the team, but he can be very productive at times and he is an important factor at a position in transition. The Bengals can’t afford to lose him when Dennard has yet to prove that he is starting material and Jones appearing to be on the down slope, not to mention, likely to be dealt a suspension if not cut all together.
The hope is that Jackson III will contribute at a high level when he gets an actual chance to play, but he has yet to take a snap at the NFL level due to injury. Therefore, there is no reason for the Bengals to put all of their eggs in the Jackson basket. Furthermore, even if Jackson is guaranteed to be great, is it wise for the Bengals to only have one young, starting caliber cornerback on the team? Certainly not. There’s also KeiVarae Russell, who grabbed an interception on his first defensive play. But, we also don’t really know what he’s going to turn out to be. Most teams have multiple threats in the passing game, so the Bengals need multiple cornerbacks whom they can trust to guard opponents well.
Kirkpatrick’s value to the team is just too high for them to let him test free agency right now. The Bengals built him up, trained him for five years, taught him what he needs to know to succeed at the NFL level, and now, they need to take advantage of that while he’s at the heights of his career. The Bengals absolutely must work out a deal with him or risk a very bleak and uncertain situation at cornerback going forward.
Priority to re-sign: High