The Cincinnati Bengals’ cornerback position is as deep as ever and facing an interesting opportunity in Week 1. The team currently employs three recent first round draft picks at the position in Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard and William Jackson, in addition to long-time starter Adam Jones. Injuries have taken a big toll on the group, particularly with Jackson and Dennard. Jackson is projected to be an effective long-term starter for the Bengals and has looked good so far as he prepares for year 2 following a torn pectoral in his rookie year, which caused him to spend the year on Injured Reserve. Heading into the 2017 season, Kirkpatrick and Jones are expected to be the starters at the position, but Jones is suspended for Week 1 due to his offseason arrest. So, who’s going to take on his role in the season opener on September 10?
According to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com, Jackson seems to be on pace to earn the starting cornerback nod against the Baltimore Ravens:
Jackson had a nice game and has to be the odds-on favorite to replace Jones in the opener.
Jones’ suspension goes to show exactly why the Bengals need to look to the future at cornerback. Yes, Jones is still playing at a high level. But, he turns 34 in September and has yet to prove he can move past the off-field issues that regularly reflect poorly back on the team.
If anyone is going to encourage the Bengals to move on from Jones, Jackson seems like the player to do it. In the Bengals’ Week 1 preseason game against the Buccaneers, he recorded three tackles and a few big defensive plays. It was an encouraging debut for the Bengals’ redshirted youngster.
That said, it was also an encouraging day from Dennard, who recorded a tackle against the passing game, and a tackle against the running game. He did give up one notable big play early in the first quarter. But, he buckled down afterward and finished strong. Dennard is saying Mike Evans, who recorded a 29-yard catch against him, pushed off and should have been flagged. Yet, he was not.
Although Jackson is projected to be an eventual long-term replacement for Jones, Dennard was brought in to fill that role first, though he’s been slow to develop. This year, he’s more likely to secure the slot cornerback role, which he played at times last year, though Josh Shaw saw the bulk of the playing time there. Unfortunately, Dennard has yet to play a full 16 game season in his three year career, primarily due to various injury-related setbacks. However, more performances like we saw during his 40 snaps on Friday will surely encourage the Bengals to find more ways to work the young cornerback into the defensive scheme. They did pick up the fifth year option on his rookie deal, which will keep him in Cincinnati through the 2018 season, at least.
Jackson likely won’t keep the starting cornerback spot when Jones returns from suspension in Week 2. But, if he plays well in Week 1, building off a strong preseason debut, he could certainly encourage the Bengals to give him more opportunities going forward. Continuing down that path, he should eventually become a bona fide starter and a key member of the Bengals’ defense.
If the Bengals’ young cornerbacks can stay healthy going forward, the unit’s potential is through the roof. The Bengals need Jackson and Dennard to be at their best as they transition into the new generation at the cornerback position. If they can manage that, this unit could easily become one of the Bengals’ strongest on the team.