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Comparing Bengals’ 2016 and 2017 cornerback units

The Bengals made a concerted effort to keep their 2016 cornerback corps in tact this offseason.

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Cincinnati Bengals’ cornerback corps is in a better place than most realize. In 2016, the Bengals’ passing defense allowed an 83.1 average passer rating to opposing quarterbacks, which ranked fifth in the NFL. That impressive statistic came despite some struggles from the unit as a whole. Trying to blame the shortcomings of the defense on the cornerback unit simply doesn’t make sense. Perhaps, that is why the Bengals made very few changes to the unit this offseason.

Let’s take a look at where the roster stands now in comparison to last season.

2016 roster

Dre Kirkpatrick

Kirkpatrick has developed into a solid starting cornerback. He began his tenure as a full time starter with the Bengals in 2015 and continued in 2016, putting up 46 tackles, 10 pass deflections, and three interceptions for 21 yards. Although some have questioned his level of play since being selected in Round 1 of the 2012 NFL Draft, he has proven himself as a reliable, consistent option at cornerback.

Status: Still on the team.

Adam Jones

In 2015, Jones had a Pro Bowl caliber season with 62 tackles, three interceptions for 14 yards, one sack, and 12 pass deflections. In 2016, he took a minor step back, though, he still played at a high level, was the highest ranked cornerback by PFF on the roster and even ranked 7th on Ike Taylor’s list of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.

His combined tackles were slightly up (66), but he only caught one interception for two yards, and seven pass deflections. During the 2017 offseason, he was arrested, though all charges other than obstructing official business were eventually dropped. His only sentencing was the two days in jail he initially spent when arrested on January 3, 2017. Luckily for him, the Bengals stood behind him as he worked through his issues, and he is expected to go into 2017 with his starting role intact. At 33-years-old, he isn’t getting any younger, but, he’s still among the top two cornerbacks on the roster.

Status: Still on the team.

Darqueze Dennard

The frustrating saga of Dennard continues in 2017 as he looks to finally make a consistently meaningful impact with the team. In his rookie season (2014), he was active for most of the season, but only recorded 19 combined tackles, a sack, and a pass deflection. In 2015, he got off to a good start with 16 combined tackles, three pass deflections, and an interception for 10 yards. But he injured his shoulder in Week 11 and was lost for the remainder of the season. In 2016, he started three games, recording 41 combined tackles, and one deflected pass. Hopefully, he will finally develop into a consistently reliable player in 2017, but there will be a push from some of the youngers cornerbacks for his job. That already happened last season as he lost the slot cornerback role to Josh Shaw (more on that below).

Status: Still on the team.

William Jackson III

The Bengals made Jackson III the 24th overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, which was a head scratcher considering the team used first round picks at that position in the 2012 and 2014 NFL Drafts in Kirkpatrick and Dennard, respectively. Considering Jones’ status as a former first round pick as well, the Bengals’ cornerback position looked absolutely stacked heading into 2016. Unfortunately, adding to the list of frustrating issues at the position, Jackson succumbed to a torn pectoral muscle in training camp and missed the entire season as a result. In 2017, he will hope to stay healthy and show the Bengals why they drafted him.

Status: Still on the team

Josh Shaw

Shaw has been one of the Bengals’ most reliable players at the position since the team drafted him 120th overall in the 2015 NFL Draft. He put up 15 combined tackles and a pass deflection in 2015, despite only starting one game, and put up 47 combined tackles, three pass deflections, and an interception in his 12 starts in 2016. He served as the team’s primary slot cornerback last season after winning the job over Dennard. Whether he maintains the job in 2017 is a big question as is whether the team looks to use him at safety. He played some significant snaps at safety in 2016 and did well in that role as well.

Status: Still on the team

KeiVarae Russell

1.000. That number is all you need to know about Russell. That represents his current snap-to-interception ratio in the NFL. A 2016 third round pick for the Kansas City Chiefs, he failed to make any noticeable impact in training camp and was abruptly cut just as the season was getting started. The Bengals claimed him off waivers the following day and finally gave him a chance to play on defense in Week 17 against the Baltimore Ravens. He only went in for one snap, but that one snap saw him intercept Ryan Mallett, putting a very solid exclamation mark on a dominating 27-10 victory. If he can capitalize on that momentum this season, he could unexpectedly make move up the depth chart.

Status: Still on the team.

Tony McRae

McRae spent time on the Bengals’ practice squad in 2016, making him the lowest man on the totem pole at cornerback. He’ll have an uphill climb to make the roster in 2017, though, another stint on the practice squad is possible.

Status: Still on the team.

2017 changes

Bengals sign Bene Benwikere

The only real change the Bengals made to the cornerback corps this offseason was signing former Panthers cornerback, Benwikere. He did well in 2015 as a slot cornerback but couldn’t stepped up to the plate when moved to the outside in 2016. He was abruptly cut after allowing a 300 yard performance to Julio Jones early on during the 2016 season. After that, he had short stints with the Dolphins and Packers, which never materialized into anything notable. But, the Bengals still felt he was worth a shot this offseason and signed him to a one-year, $690,000 contract. For now, it seems unlikely he will be able to find a spot on the roster, but the Bengals would like to foster the spirit of competition regardless. He’ll add competition to the slot cornerback battle with Dennard and Shaw.

Bengals re-sign Kirkpatrick

The Bengals had an opportunity to make a big change to the cornerback corps this offseason by letting Kirkpatrick walk in free agency. But, instead, the team re-signed him to a five-year, $52.5 million contract. The Bengals now have him locked up through 2021 and he’s expected to keep his starting role for the long-term as a result.

Bengals pick up Dennard’s fifth-year option

2017 would have been a contract year for Dennard, a litmus test for how much he has truly learned since entering the league. But, the Bengals made a statement by picking up his fifth-year option, essentially showing they believe his development so far has been good enough to at least warrant an extra year. That is probably the best possible scenario for Dennard, who will have quite a bit of competition for his role in 2017. He’s now slated to make $8,526,000 in 2018, though he has a lot of room for growth before warranting that type of payday. Cornerbacks whose average salaries around $8 million per year include Chris Harris, Kareem Jackson, David Amerson and Adam Jones.

Jones’ potential suspension

Jones could be suspended by the NFL for his offseason arrest. News on that can come at any time and will shake up the look of the Bengals’ cornerback unit when it does. Dave Lapham expects a 2-4 game suspension.

2017 outlook

Save for one low-key free agency signing, the Bengals did not make any real changes to this unit from last season. The return of Jackson could make a difference, but for the most part the differences between 2016 and 2017 will be minor for the cornerback group.