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Breaking down the future of the Bengals’ cornerback position

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The Bengals’ cornerback position is in a period of transition.

The Bengals have invested quite a bit into bolstering the cornerback position over the last few years. The team selected Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard, and William Jackson III with their first round picks in the 2012, 2014, and 2016 drafts, respectively. That’s half of the last six drafts in which the team picked a cornerback in the first round alone. Throw in later draft picks used on Shaun Prater, Lavelle Westbrooks and Josh Shaw, the last of whom is still with the team, and that’s six total draft picks used on the cornerback position in the last four years.

In addition to their draft picks, the Bengals have signed Bene Benwikere, Chykie Brown, Tony McRae, and KeiVarae Russell as free agents in the last two years (plus a few other players who are no longer on the roster). Each of these players has added both youth and competition to a loaded position.

The case of Russell, who should not be counted out of any discussion involving the future of the Bengals’ cornerback position, is a curious one indeed. A former 2016 third round pick by the Chiefs, he was shockingly cut four days before the season started. The Bengals claimed him off waivers and he spent nearly all of the season on the bench before making it on the field for a single snap at the end of the final game of his rookie season. With that play, his lone defensive snap of the year, he made an incredible interception on Ravens backup quarterback Ryan Mallett. The resulting career snap-to-interception ratio of 1:1 is an interesting feat that you may never see repeated again.

That said, as impressive as Russell’s current snap-to-interception ratio is right now, it is more of a curiosity than anything else. It shows that he has the potential to make plays for the Bengals, but he still has to earn a spot on the final roster before the 2017 season starts.

All of these players join another former first round pick, Adam Jones, on the roster, who has been with the Bengals since 2010 after stops with the Titans and Cowboys in his first four seasons. He has held a starting spot with the team for the vast majority of his time in Cincinnati and is without a doubt one of the most successful veteran free agent signings for the Bengals in recent history. However, after his first and only Pro Bowl season in 2015, he took a step back in 2016. He will be 34-years-old in September, so there is plenty of reason to believe the Bengals will begin the process of replacing him on the depth chart and in the defensive game plan sooner rather than later. There’s also the issue of Jones’ January arrest, which could cause the Bengals to cut ties with him this offseason. Even if the Bengals don’t cut Jones, he could very likely be suspended by the NFL for his legal run-in (which keeps getting weirder and weirder).

The logical successor to Jones is Kirkpatrick, who has been reliable, if unspectacular, for the Bengals since first winning a starting job in 2015. However, he will be an unrestricted free agent if the Bengals do not renew his contract by March 9 at 4 p.m. EST. If the Bengals are unable to retain him, this position starts to look very unstable, at least on the surface.

Should Kirkpatrick leave, the Bengals would likely hope that Jackson III can stay healthy in his second season and develop into a consistently reliable starter. If not, Dennard or Shaw would be expected to step up next to Jones, who is still under contract through 2018. The Bengals’ newest cornerback, Benwikere, does have some starting experience, but it would be silly to expect him to jump right in to fill the starting role on the boundary with the Bengals after he failed to stick with the Dolphins in 2016 following an unceremonious release from the Panthers.

The Bengals could have signed Benwikere in preparation for the possibility that Kirkpatrick will not return in 2017. However, if an extension is worked out, having an experienced starting cornerback around to take over if Jones continues to struggle is always a good thing. Either way, it will certainly be interesting to see how the Bengals’ cornerback position shakes out in 2017 and beyond, given how many talented players the team currently has to choose from.