We decided to wait on the conclusion of this top-five series because of impending free agency and the Bengals having question marks around four major contributors in the secondary. To date, the Bengals re-signed two of them in cornerback Adam Jones and safety George Iloka, but questions still remain on the effectiveness and direction of the group.
Leon Hall has had a little bit of interest on the market, namely from the Cardinals, while the other unsigned guy of the four, Reggie Nelson, is finally drawing interest from the Titans. Getting this group back to being one of the best in the NFL will be crucial for the Bengals making another AFC North tile run.
Recent First Round Corners Need to Step up:
In a span of three draft classes from 2012-2014, the Bengals used two first round selections on cornerbacks. To date, the results have been mixed, with injuries and the coaching staff's preference of trusting veterans tipping the scales a little bit more towards "bust". After finally showing promise in 2013 and 2014 as a niche corner capable of making big plays (six interceptions and two returned for touchdowns), Dre Kirkpatrick inexplicably had zero picks last year, after starting 15 of 16 games and playing in all 17 in 2015.
Meanwhile, Darqueze Dennard, the corner from the 2014 draft, hasn't risen above slot corner and has had two injury-riddled seasons in the pros. He began to flash with a bit of an increased role last season and garnered his first career interception, but a shoulder injury caused him to miss the final eight games of the season (including the playoffs), and it sounds like he'll be missing the workouts in spring and early parts of summer.
Kirpatrick is on the fifth-year option of his rookie deal, so he'll need to prove he's the long-term answer at corner, or else it might be time for another high pick. Dennard will likely be the slot corner in 2016 with Jones re-upping, but he'll need to stay healthy and be able to stay with some of the big-play offenses they will face next year.
Young'uns Proving to be Trustworthy:
If the Bengals don't bring back the battle-tested Nelson at safety or the savvy swing-man in Hall, the staff will need to prove the excitement they showed on some of the young players wasn't just talk. Shawn Williams isn't exactly green anymore, but the versatile Josh Shaw and Derron Smith need to show they belong as more than just depth.
Both will likely still need to contribute on special teams in year two, but they also might need to do a bit more on defense, should Hall and Nelson never return. Shaw might make Hall expendable, even though he's been a quality player for Cincinnati for the past nine seasons. The former USC Trojan can run and hit well, making him another good slot option to have in nickel and dime packages.
Vets Producing after big deals:
A worry with any franchise is how a player will react and perform on the field after finally receiving a big deal from the club. Adam Jones had a spotty personal record in the early part of his career, but has largely kept out of trouble since joining the Bengals in 2010. His three-year, $22 million deal he just signed is the biggest he's inked with the Bengals and the largest amount of money he'll be earning since his lucrative rookie deal with the Titans.
He's saying all of the right things, but will the motivation be at the same high level it has been the previous six years after continuously fighting for a job and a good contract? I think Jones will make good on the deal, but he will be 33 at the early part of the season.
Iloka has a bit bigger risk on his deal though, mostly because of the sum. Besides that though, risk when signing a player to a huge deal after their relatively paltry rookie contracts, gets pretty high. Because of his age and overall skill set, the ceiling is definitely higher, but it's no coincidence that Iloka's best play has been when he has been linked at the hip with Nelson. If the veteran safety doesn't come back, Iloka will need to prove he can still be a big-time safety with someone new flanking him.