The Cincinnati Bengals’ cornerback position has been facing an interesting conundrum during the last few years. Despite being loaded with first round talent (Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard, William Jackson III) injuries and other problems have seen a lot of inconsistency and unreliability develop from this unit. For that reason, the Bengals have been stacking their depth to prepare for the future.
Including former fourth round pick Josh Shaw as a virtual lock for the fifth cornerback spot, there is only one likely spot left on the Bengals’ roster for a cornerback in 2017. There may be two spots, depending on how much cushion the Bengals want to have at the position. Regardless, most of the players at the position not previously mentioned are looking at an all-out battle for this particular bubble.
Although generally glanced over as a non-notable free agent signing this offseason, the Bengals found a solid competitor in Benwikere. Despite bouncing around between the Panthers, Dolphins, and Packers in 2016, he has a fairly impressive background, which the Bengals found intriguing. After being selected in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, he quickly won a job as the Panthers’ nickel corner and played very well throughout his rookie season, even making Sports Illustrated’s 2014 All-Rookie Team.
2015 did not go as well as he was moved around on the depth chart to make way for incoming free agent Charles Tillman. He still performed well, but he suffered a fractured leg in Week 16 and was placed on Injured Reserve as a result. As such, he missed the playoff run, leading up to the Panthers’ Super Bowl 50 loss. Things didn’t improve from there as he was named a starter in 2016, moved to the boundary and gave up 300 receiving yards to Julio Jones (in a single game), prompting the Panthers to release him.
After his release, he spent time on the Dolphins’ and Packers’ practice squads, but was unable to make much of an impression with either team. If he can return to form with the Bengals in 2017, he could make a surprise appearance further up the depth chart. As a player once considered one of the best up-and-coming cornerbacks in the NFL, his only barrier to success is himself.
Russell made headlines in September 2016 as the highest selected player to be waived from the 2016 NFL Draft class. The Kansas City Chiefs drafted him up 74th overall, the 11th pick of the third round. Unfortunately, his inability to learn their playbook and climb the depth chart made the Chiefs feel he was expendable. Correspondingly, the Bengals recognized the opportunity and pounced, claiming him off waivers.
Russell never had much of a chance to climb the Bengals’ depth chart with so many veterans and established players ahead of him. But, he was active for the final five games of the season and made a great impression when he finally received his chance on the field. He only played one defensive snap the entire season, which also happened to be the Bengals’ final defensive play of the 2016 NFL season. But, in his one on-field opportunity, he killed the Ravens’ developing two-minute drill with an interception on quarterback Ryan Mallett, allowing the Bengals to simply run out the remaining time on the clock and solidify their win
McRae saw a fairly successful college career with the North Carolina A&T Aggies as both a cornerback and a kick returner. He performed so well in his junior season, teams began avoiding him in 2015 and his stats dropped off as a result. Unfortunately, that also meant interest from NFL teams dropped off as he fell completely out of the draft and wound up with the Oakland Raiders as an undrafted free agent. He failed to make any impression with the Raiders, being released before training camp even started.
The Bengals picked him up after his release and received a player ready to compete, but perhaps not ready to make an impact in their already crowded cornerback unit. He stuck around for two stints on the practice squad and signed with the team again in the offseason. He could return to the Bengals’ practice squad in 2017, but a chance at a roster spot seems over-ambitious considering the two promising young players mentioned above.
Although he was a fairly productive safety/cornerback hybrid with the Michigan State Spartans, a down year in 2016 and a misdemeanor assault charge earlier this year scared a lot of teams away from Cox. He avoided jail time as a result of a plea agreement, but NFL teams weren’t happy to hear of his drunken escapades, which ended in a senseless assault against his cab driver.
However, as far as football talent goes, Cox has as much of a chance as anyone. During his last two seasons with the Spartans, he played both cornerback and safety, recording a total of 134 total tackles (3.5 for a loss), four interceptions (one touchdown), 12 pass deflections, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. Needless to say, if he can avoid more negative attention, he has the talent to make more of a push for a roster spot than most undrafted free agents.