Dre Kirkpatrick has been in the NFL since 2012, when the Bengals drafted him in the first-round. He’s been a regular starter since 2015, and he’s now one of the more experienced players on the team.
Not many other current Bengals know the AFC North better than the seventh-year player, so The Players’ Tribune asked the Bengals cornerback to rank the seven best players in the AFC North.
Kirkpatrick opened with an anecdote about his young teammate, John Ross. Kirkpatrick revisits the first time he lined up against the fellow former first round pick in practice.
“I knew about the 4.22 he had run at the combine,” Kirkpatrick began. “But I wanted to show him that speed doesn’t scare me. So I was gonna bait him into thinking I was out of breath or something, then, right at the snap, I’d be like bang! and get right up on him. You know, show the rook what’s up.”
When the ball was snapped, however, Ross beat Kirkpatrick so quickly that the corner didn’t even bother chasing him.
“I just went over to Pacman (Jones) after the play and was like, ‘Yo, that guy right there? He’s the fastest guy I’ve ever seen in my life.’”
But, for all his speed, Ross was not included in the list. Kirkpatrick says that Ross would qualify for a list of the seven fastest players in the division, and that he is the only player in the NFL with speed that frightens him.
Kirkpatrick also said that Le’Veon Bell is the best running back in the NFL, but didn’t make this list because he is not currently playing.
All that said, here is Kirkpatrick’s list of the seven best players in the AFC North:
7. Michael Crabtree, WR, Baltimore Ravens
Kirkpatrick says that the Ravens probably signed Michael Crabtree because he had a monster game against them when he was with the Raiders. The game to which he is referring happened was in Week 4 of 2016, where Crabtree caught seven passes for 88 yards and three touchdowns.
Kirkpatrick explains how he did it.
“He’s got a big body, big hands, and even though he’s only 6’1″, he’s got a big catch radius. He’s got 34.5-inch arms … Calvin Johnson is 6’5″, and his arms aren’t even that long. So basically, Crabtree is 6’1″, but with a wingspan of a guy who’s 6’5″ or bigger.”
Kirkpatrick says that Crabtree uses his reach to grab jump balls, which is crucial because he says “it opens up everything underneath.”
The only AFCN newcomer on this list, Kirkpatrick will get plenty of opportunities against him in the near future.
Kirkpatrick’s first game against Crabtree as a division rival came on Thursday night. Crabtree was held to five catches on ten targets for 56 yards and no touchdowns.
6. Joe Haden, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
When A.J. Green contributed to The Players’ Tribune last year, he included Joe Haden as one of the toughest corners he’s ever faced. Green mentioned that Haden is an expert in throwing off a receivers’ timing.
“He’s probably the best there is at knocking you off your route just a little bit,” Green said, “Just enough where the ball is a half second early or a half second late.”
Kirkpatrick looks at Haden from a different perspective.
“He reads the quarterback. He understands route combinations. He knows his own strengths and weaknesses, so when he’s forced to press he knows he doesn’t have the speed to stay with a faster receiver on a deep ball, so he plays with great outside leverage and forces the receiver inside toward his help. So even though he’s not a true press, shutdown corner, he can still take a receiver out of a play and eliminate one side of the field. He just does it a little differently than most guys.”
Even though Haden doesn’t have the talent that other cornerbacks have, he makes up for it with his approach. All he is trying to is keep receivers covered for two seconds. Then his job is done and its on to the next play.
5. Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns
The only member of the Browns to make an appearance on this list is former first overall pick, Myles Garrett. Kirkpatrick totally understands why Garrett was drafted so high.
“He’s so physical and quick off the edge, and he doesn’t just use the swim. I’ve seen him throw a couple of spin moves, and he’s got a little power to his rush, too. He has that whole package that you want in a pass rusher.”
Kirkpatrick says that, as a cornerback, he appreciates a good pass rush because it means the receivers they are covering have less time to develop their routes. Green says a receiver typically has two seconds to create separation, but a good pass rush can shorten that window to only one and a half seconds. Kirkpatrick agrees and says, “the DBs in Cleveland are loving Myles Garrett right now.”
4. Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens
This may come as a surprise, especially since the Bengals have not had a hard time defeating Joe Flacco in recent years. It is also interesting because Kirkpatrick offers two ways to beat him.
Kirkpatrick is just coming off of a win against Flacco in their Thursday night game, but Flacco still tallied 376 yards.
Kirkpatrick says of Flacco, “He’s just so good at executing every throw on the field and taking exactly what the defense gives him.”
Flacco is very conservative, so he won’t make many mistakes. Kirkpatrick recommends, first of all, that cornerbacks jam receivers at the line or do whatever they can to throw off the timing so that Flacco, who depends mostly on timing, will go to another read.
The other things Kirkpatrick says teams do against Flacco is to disguise their looks pre-snap in order to confuse him.
Whatever it takes to beat him, Kirkpatrick has had plenty of time to figure it out. Flacco may not have a lot of time left in Baltimore, but we’ll see how Kirkpatrick will rank Lamar Jackson in the coming years.
3. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Probably the most unpopular name on this roster, Ben Roethlisberger has had plenty of accomplishments in his long career. Even though he is on the back end of his career and he may not be as good as he was, he has the best resume of anyone else on the list. As Kirkpatrick says, “He might be the GOAT, in my eyes.”
“Even when you got guys like we do up front getting after it, or guys like Myles Garrett, Ben always seems to find a way to extend the play and give his receivers an extra second to get open. He just knows how to move in the pocket. He has that sixth sense of being able to feel the pass rush while keeping his eyes downfield.”
As a Bengals fan, there is nothing more frustrating than watching the defensive line get penetration, only to have Big Ben duck out of a tackle, flee the pocket, and complete a pass between the broken down coverage.
But that is what makes him so great. Kirkpatrick says that the two-second window is actually much longer when playing against Roethlisberger because of his pocket presence and his uncanny ability to avoid the sack.
2. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Here, Kirkpatrick finally gives a nod to a teammate.
“I didn’t really plan on picking any Bengals here,” he says, “but I gotta take it to the home team.”
But it would be a crime to leave A.J. Green off this list.
“I think A.J. Green is underrated. I play against this man every day in practice, and I’m telling you, he’s faster than you think. He’s stronger than you think. His hands are better than you think. As an all-around complete receiver, he’s top two or three in the league, no doubt.”
Green is definitely one of the best all-around wideouts in the NFL, let alone the division. There is nothing that Green can’t do. He’s a physical freak, which probably the most obvious thing about him.
“But the sneakiest thing about A.J. is probably his athleticism.” Kirkpatrick adds on.
We’ve all seen Green jump up and make spectacular catches and embarrassing cornerbacks. Kirkpatrick can talk about these plays firsthand, as one who has practiced against Green since his entrance into the NFL six years ago.
So it’s no wonder Green would be added to this list.
1. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
The All-Pro is the only player in the division that could conceivably beat out A.J. Green for the top spot.
Antonio Brown, number two on the NFL Top 100 list this season, is arguably one of the best receivers in the league. So naturally, Kirkpatrick is going to put him at the top of his list.
“He’s very loose at the line,” Kirkpatrick says, “And he varies his speed in his routes so well. He’ll run a couple of routes at like 80% speed, and then just when you feel like you got a feel for his pacing, he’ll come off the ball again at 80% and then just turn on the jets and beat you on a go ball.”
If there is any team that Brown is not wildly successful against, it is the Bengals. Adam Jones always held his own against Brown, and now William Jackson has found the secret to stopping him.
But just because the Bengals have figured him out doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“You have to communicate with your safeties so you know exactly where your help is going to be, because AB is gonna find the open spot. And Ben’s gonna do his thing and duck like three guys in the backfield and spin around or something and throw up a dime. And you’re gonna be the guy dreading film study the next day.”
Do you agree with Kirkpatrick’s list? Who doesn’t belong? Who got snubbed?