Free agency is always a net negative for the Bengals, but one thing they usual do well is keep their own. With a few exceptions on the offensive line, the Bengals can typically count on re-signing players they want to keep.
The Bengals lost out on a free agent that has played a vital, though not very sexy role over the last few years.
Starting slot corner Darqueze Dennard agreed to a deal with the Jaguars, while B.W. Webb was releaed, leaving that area of the field wide open.
Where do the Bengals go to replace Dennard? Do they look at free agency or the draft?
If they want to look inward, there is a player on the team who had limited playing time last season, but was arguably one of the best cornerbacks on the team.
That player is Darius Phillips.
But before we get started, it is important to note that Dennard’s role and the slot corner position aren’t necessarily the same thing.
As Matt Minich said on a recent Chalk Talk episode, Dennard is going to leave a hybrid role that doesn’t have to be filled by a slot corner. Not only did Dennard cover slot receivers, but also helped contain the edge in the run game. The job he was given almost imitated that of an outside linebacker at times.
The Bengals didn’t have a good replacement for him when he started off the season on the PUP list, and the run game suffered. When Dennard came back, the Bengals’ run defense improved immediately.
Phillips played slot corner in his absence for part of the Bengals’ Week 3 matchup against the Bills, but he’s not the solution there. He just doesn’t have the same skill set.
If the Bengals want someone who was on their roster roster last year to be the next Dennard, the closest match would be Tony McRae. But he’s currently an unrestricted free agent, and still not as good of an all-around player as Phillips.
So all this means that the Bengals have to fill both the Darqueze Dennard role and the slot corner position. They could try to find one player to do that, but it looks unlikely at this point.
The Bengals did sign Trae Waynes, but he will probably play on the outside when Dre Kirkpatrick is ideally either traded or released. This leaves Phillips as the next man up in the slot.
Phillips made a name for himself as a kick returner, but also put together a solid season on defense despite the small sample size.
He played in three games this season in which he logged more than four snaps on defense. In those three games, he totaled 102 snaps at both outside and in slot. He played admirably in his first two games coming off the bench for relief each time. He finally started in Week 17 and logged 53 snaps, but the Browns exposed some of his weaknesses.
In his first two games, he was on the field for 16 coverage snaps. When the quarterbacks targeted the receiver he was covering, they completed one pass for six yards on six attempts. Phillips got his hands on four of the six balls thrown his way, and even picked of two of them.
The Browns figured out the best way to beat him, so his performance against them was a mixed bag.
Baker Mayfield completed four of his eight passes in Phillips’ direction for 113 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. The four passes completed against him were a 46-yard touchdown, a 36-yard pass, a 20-yard touchdown, and a 11-yard check down.
The Browns learned that they could go deep against him, so that’s exactly what they did in the first half. But to his credit, he figured out whatever was plaguing him, and the last time the Browns went deep against him he intercepted the pass 53 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage.
The Browns probably picked up his tendency to give up deep routes from his performance against the Bills. In that game, he came in late for the injured McRae. But since the Bills’ receiving core wasn’t spectacular, and he could get safety help from the middle of the field, it didn’t do any damage.
However, when Phillips started against the Browns, he played all of his snaps on the boundary, and was going up against Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Naturally, that flaw would be exposed.
Phillips will enter his third year in 2020, and since he’s not been a regular starter he doesn’t have much experience. Once he plays more regularly, though, he should improve.
The slot is a good place for him to develop because it will help mitigate some of his weaknesses. But he doesn’t play against the run like Dennard did, so the Bengals will have to find something else in that area. But in terms of pure coverage, Phillips is one of the best on the team.
The Bengals are going to lose two first-round cornerbacks in this draft. Maybe the solution will end up being a fifth-round cornerback.