One of the deepest position groups on the Cincinnati Bengals’ roster is cornerback, where four former first round picks will be fighting for playing time in 2017. Those players are Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard and William Jackson III. The former two are all but locks to be starting in 2017, while the latter two will be competing all summer to earn playing time.
On top of that, there’s KeiVarae Russell (a third round pick), Josh Shaw (a fourth round pick), Bene Benwikere (a fifth round pick) and Tony McRae (undrafted) on the depth chart.
While the talent is there, how do these players combine to create a cornerback unit that opposing teams fear? In which order do the backups stack up and what questions remain to be answered? Let’s dive in.
Dennard vs Shaw in the slot
Last season, Shaw beat out Dennard to earn the large majority of playing time in the slot. Shaw played 618 snaps on defense last year, compared to 334 for Dennard. But, the Bengals picked up Dennard’s fifth year option, which means he’ll be sticking around on the roster through at least the 2018 season. Dennard has endured a number of injuries that have limited his production and development —including three consecutive preseason/training camp injuries— but based on the amount of money he’s getting paid, you’d think the Bengals would want him on the field a lot more frequently. Shaw has also played some safety, and he may be pushed to do more of that in 2017. But, the starting spots at safety are locked up by Shawn Williams and George Iloka so it’s not like there’s an abundance of playing time to be had at safety either.
There’s a lot of talent and not enough playing time to go around but players don’t get better by sitting on the bench. So, who will be playing more frequently this season, the former USC stud or the first round pick out of Michigan State?
On top of that, there’s good reason to question whether Dennard would actually be better served playing on the boundary. But, who spends more time on the bench for that to happen? Jones, who the team has stuck by through thick and thin, or Kirkpatrick who the team just inked to a five year, $52.5 million contract extension.
Addition of Benwikere
Another option to play in the slot is the former Carolina Panthers cornerback, Benwikere, who the Bengals scooped up this offseason. He was cut by the Panthers early on during the 2016 season and bounced around the league late in the year with the Dolphins and Packers. He did best when in the slot in 2015 but when forced into a bigger role on the boundary, he didn’t fare well. He allowed a massive game to Julio Jones in Week 4 last season, in which Jones recorded 12 catches for 300 yards and 1 touchdown. In making a point that such play would not be allowed, the Panthers cut their starting cornerback less than one week later. Now, he’s receiving another chance with the Bengals after reportedly getting four other offers from teams around the league this offseason. Will he make the most of it and push other players off the depth chart? Or, will he end up getting cut in early September due to an abundance of talent at the position? I’m not confident the Bengals will be able to keep him around.
What about Jackson?
Continuing off the point made above that players don’t get better while sitting on the bench, Jackson needs to see the field to put him on an upward career trajectory. The 2016 first round pick is coming off a lost rookie season in which he remained on Injured Reserve for the entire year due to a torn a pectoral muscle, suffered in training camp. There’s a lot of talent and experience ahead of him on the depth chart, but the Bengals would be doing themselves a big disservice by keeping Jackson on the bench in 2017. Somehow, the team needs to find him playing time.
1 interception wonder
In the closing minutes of the Bengals’ 2016 season, the team put Russell on the field for the first defensive snap of his NFL career. Baltimore Ravens backup quarterback Ryan Mallett had entered the game and threw up a pass to wide receiver Breshad Perriman. Only, the ball was snatched away by Russell, who secured his first interception on his only defensive play in the NFL. What a moment. It was awesome and who wouldn’t want to see more from where that came from?
Potential suspension for Jones
One thing that could give Dennard, Jackson and Russell increased playing time is a potential suspension for Jones. After his offseason arrest, the expectation is that Jones will be suspended by the NFL for some length of time. It remains to be seen if that will happen and for how long the suspension will be. But, Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham believes a 2-4 game suspension is possible. And, based on Jones’ lengthy history of legal issues and suspensions, I’d have to agree. If Jones is suspended, it will be a great opportunity for one of the younger players to step up and prove their ability in real-game scenarios. Jones is a top two cornerback on the Bengals’ roster, which is why he remains on the team. But if he is suspended, the younger players will need to take advantage of the opportunity presented to them.
My best guess at the depth chart —as of today— would be:
Jones / Kirkpatrick
Shaw / Dennard / Jackson
How would you rank the cornerback depth chart pre-training camp?