Injuries and poor scheme completely incapacitated the Bengals’ defense in 2018, but their defensive backs were hardly a liability.
A good mix of veterans and first/second-year players gave Cincinnati a playmaking secondary that attempted to carry the rest of the unit when it faltered. A couple key moves sparked the formation of this group, and a few more are needed to maintain stability and enhance it even further than where it is now.
- William Jackson
- Dre Kirkpatrick
- Darqueze Dennard
- Shawn Williams
- Jessie Bates
- Clayton Fejedelem
2019 potential free agents:
- Darqueze Dennard
After what would have been a breakout season in 2017 (if the national media paid attention to the Bengals) Williams Jackson took a step back in 2018. Coaching changes on the defensive side of the ball likely played a role in this, as former defensive coordinator Teryl Austin seemed to have a negative impact on the production of just about everyone around him.
Dre Kirkpatrick had his ups and downs, but was at least serviceable opposite Jackson. Darqueze Dennard continued to play well in the slot corner position and saw a drop off when pushed to the outside. KeiVarae Russell and rookie Darius Phillips both were impressive when injuries to other players gave them a chance to compete.
After drafting Jessie Bates in the 2nd round, the Bengals were so confident in him that they were able to move on from veteran George Iloka before the season began. This was a bit of a surprise, but once Bates took the field, there was little doubt that it was the right decision.
Around the middle of the season, there was a legitimate argument for Bates as the defensive rookie of the year. Players like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James have some unique qualities that will serve them well in the NFL, but Bates was the best pure free safety from the 2018 NFL Draft class. This gave the Bengals something they desperately needed defensively. Bates was not just impressive for a rookie, but seems to be on track to establish himself as one of the leagues best.
Opposite him is veteran Shawn Williams, who is more of a rock-down player. Williams continued to play at a high level in 2018. Clayton Fejedelem looked impressive when called upon to fill in at the safety position. He seems to have a knack for always being around the football.
2019 Outlook and Need
Jackson needs to take a step forward in 2019, make his pet pig Annabelle proud, and establish himself as one of the leagues top cornerbacks. Many fans love to hate on Kirkpatrick, but he is a decent No. 2 cornerback in the NFL. For what he’s getting paid, you’d like for him to be more consistent, but this is where we’re at.
The trouble with Kirkpatrick is that his let-downs tend to be exposed and come at the worst possible times. With Jackson and Kirkpatrick, the Bengals do not have an Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters kind of duo, but they have a good pair.
Think about it like this: Kirkpatrick is easily top 50 in the league at his position. With 32 teams in the league, cornerbacks ranked 33-48 would be in the top half of No. 2 cornerbacks. An upgrade would be great, but he is nowhere near the top of their list of problems.
The Bengals have historically kept their cornerbacks on one side of the field and very rarely allowed Jackson to shadow a team’s best receiver. This has to change under defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, who was most recently a defensive backs coach. It is not even necessarily about the best player, but the best matchup.
People talk all the time about matchups offensively, but defenses can dictate them as well. Kirkpatrick can cover bigger receivers well, but is not great against smaller, shiftier guys. Freeing Jackson and Kirkpatrick to follow an optimal matchup would allow the Bengals to get the most out of them.
Dennard has been very good in the nickel corner role, but will soon enter free agency if the Bengals don’t re-sign him. If he enters the market, it is likely that the Bengals will not be able to get him back. The Bengals definitely should not want to overpay for Dennard, and it may be good for them to find someone who can defend more shifty slot receivers more effectively.
Phillips could definitely fit the bill there, and fellow rookie Davontae Harris (who missed most of 2018 with injury) also has the skill set to play in the slot. Having said that, it is important to remember that in today’s NFL, nickel defense is base defense. This is a starter in the secondary, and a new staff putting their faith in a second-year player who has seen limited action would be a mistake. They would be wise to acquire a veteran at the position, or used an early to mid-round pick on a slot corner.
The Bengals should feel pretty good about the safety position. Bates had an impressive rookie year with three interceptions and with continued growth could become one of the league’s best. Williams has been very good for the past couple of seasons as well, although this has been overlooked by many. Fejedelem is a good backup and situational player, but the Bengals could afford to add additional depth to the position,