Dre Kirkpatrick is set to hit the free agent market in a few months after completing his fifth and possibly best season in the NFL yet. The Bengals exercised the fifth year option on his rookie contract option and the 27-year old cornerback actually lived up to the money he was paid, improving greatly and even earning some "top 10 corner in the league" commentary from Chris Simms in the season finale broadcast.
Now, Cincinnati will need to make a choice. A young cornerback in the top of his game gets paid in the open market, as was the case with Janoris Jenkins last offseason. The former Ram might be a good comparison for Kirkpatrick when it comes to his value, and he signed a 5-year $62-million contract with the Giants after Los Angeles let him walk. The Bengals have the money to retain him, and also keep Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, but if they were hesitating to dig in their pockets for Kirkpatrick, the recent news about Adam Jones might force them to.
The veteran Jones slowed down in 2016 and is now facing trouble after an arrest in downtown Cincinnati on Tuesday. Considering he’s also 33-years-old and that talented rookie William Jackson III redshirted his first year as a pro, Kirkpatrick might have become a higher priority than he would have been prior to this week.
Kirkpatrick had divided fans in his previous years with the Bengals. First he was the young backup everybody wanted to see play, but then he became something close to a bust for many after getting torched almost whenever he came to the field. That changed with an outstanding performance against the Peyton Manning-led Broncos in primetime in 2014, when he picked him off twice, one returned for a touchdown. The Bengals picked his fifth-year option up and let him start with Leon Hall on the decline, but his first season as a starter in 2015 didn’t go well, and he was probably the weakest link on an otherwise standout defense.
Fast forward to his last game before free agency and the Bengals should be more than happy with the way Kirkpatrick has turned his career around. Against the Ravens on New Year’s day, he showed what he can on a consistent basis. A tall and speedy corner with good ball skills that fits perfectly into Cincy’s cover 3 scheme, Kirkpatrick has flaws, of course, but when he is on, he can shut down the deep ball and turn the opposing team into a check down heavy offense. That fits well in a division with Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger, and it’s no surprise that two of his best games have come against them in 2016. In fact, the best game of his career might have been the Bengals’ Week 2 loss in Pittsburgh.
On Sunday, Kirkpatrick was targeted per ProFootballFocus.com 10 times, and allowed six catches for 52 yards, while also breaking up a pass on fourth-down. That might sound pedestrian, but it reflects the way the Bengals’ defense has played the last six years, at least.
Where he made the difference though, was defending the intermediate and long pass. We know the Ravens like to take advantage of Flacco’s big arm - they also like to pray for a defensive pass interference call - but he didn’t have much of a chance on Sunday because of the good job by the defensive line and Kirkpatrick outside. On many occasions, the Alabama product was shadowing his man step-by-step and displaying his most valuable asset to this team, his speed.
That was always there and at 6-foot-2 it is going to be harder for most receivers to fight for the ball against him. What has improved of late, and honestly, among the entire defensive side of the football, has been his mental awareness, and I’ll leave the touchdown play to talk about it below.
This looks easy, but Kirkpatrick could have left the flat wide open had he followed the drag route, which was the play’s designed goal. On this one, Flacco’s apparent target was always the running back, and as soon as he got upfield, he delivered. Kirkpatrick completed his ad-hoc assignment, which was something that we didn’t always expect last season. He also had a pass break-up on Sunday, off of a bad decision by Flacco, who failed to read the Bengals’ defense, and threw to Breshad Perriman into double coverage.
He had three interceptions this year, and that is the third time in his career that he’s accomplished it. The jury is still out on KeiVarae Russell and Jackson III, but Kirkpatrick might have the best ball skills of the entire unit, and in this pass-heavy era, you need guys who can play the ball and make plays on the ball.
Kirkpatrick still has flaws, like his hand usage, and his nine penalties in 2016, which were sixth in the league among defensive backs. To be fair, some great corners like Patrick Peterson, Vontae Davis, A.J. Bouye or Xavier Rhodes, join him at the top of the list as well. And, more than one of his penalties were unnecessary calls that could have gone either way and wouldn’t have been called in most cases. His tackling hasn’t been the issue it was in his younger years, but he’s thin, so that might always be a problem, and his physicality against tough guys will make him a liability in the short area. The Bengals’ defense can live with that though.
On the touchdown play, it looked like either Kirkpatrick or rookie linebacker Nick Vigil blew it, and it appeared more likely to be the cornerback as the Bengals were in cover 1 with Karlos Dansby as the robber. The opposing running back was most likely Vigil’s assignment. Kirkpatrick likely thought they were still playing cover 2.
We’ve seen this from him before, and it’s bad, but he’s progressed and made fewer mistakes than in past years and gives the Bengals’ secondary a different look.
The only real concern with Kirkpatrick now is if this season’s performance is sustainable. The Bengals’ defense has improved vastly in the second half of the season but they’ve only played one good offense, Pittsburgh.
He seems like he wants to return, and the Bengals need to keep their depth at the secondary considering all of the unknowns they face there. They probably know what they have in Josh Shaw, but Jones is not helping them with his arrest - and his decline, and Russell only played one snap this year, even if it was an amazing snap. Darqueze Dennard has almost never looked good in the slot and will already be in his fourth year in the NFL in 2017. Cincinnati might try him outside, but if they want to be contenders again, that shouldn’t be their plan A. The hope is that Jackson can be a great player, but he needs to get on the field first.
Whatever the Bengals might do, Kirkpatrick showed on Sunday, and all season, what he brings to the table and it looks even more valuable now. He’s young, in his prime, has played for this defense for five years already and he’s a valuable member of the Bengals’ defense.