Nov 30, 2014; Tampa, FL, USA; Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Leon Hall (29) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 14-13. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
One of the Cincinnati Bengals‘ mantras is that a defense cannot have enough quality corners. It’s why the team has invested in numerous first-round cornerbacks over the years. It’s why they drafted veteran Leon Hall in the first round of the 2006 draft. It’s why they signed Adam Jones in 2010 and Terence Newman in 2012. And it’s why they drafted Dre Kirpatrick and Darqueze Dennard with first round selections in 2012 and 2014 respectively. But even after all this investment, is it possible the Bengals’ situation at cornerback is less than auspicious?
Currently the team has eight cornerbacks under contract: Hall, Jones, Kirkpatrick, Dennard, rookie Josh Shaw, Chris Lewis-Harris, Brandon Ghee, Onterio McCalebb, and undrafted free agent Troy Hill. The Bengals will likely carry five or six cornerbacks in 2015. This group will include Hall, Jones, Kirkpatrick, Dennard, and Shaw while, if the Bengals choose to carry a sixth, the other corners will battle it out for the spot.
The sheer number of cornerbacks available to the Bengals isn’t the issue, but rather how reliable the group will be in 2015. Leon Hall is looking to impress in 2015. He’s finally enjoying an offseason where he can prepare for the season rather than focus on rehabbing. Yet, Hall’s injuries can’t be ignored. Can he stay healthy? Will he be effective enough and allow the Bengals to rely on him? Hall is finishing his current contract this year, so he won’t be short on motivation whether it’s from a business or personal standpoint.
Behind Hall there’s Kirkpatrick and Dennard. Kirkpatrick comes into 2015 with some high expectations. After occupying a reserve role for the past three seasons, Kirkpatrick finally gets his opportunity to start this year after the team chose to move on from Terence Newman this year. Despite the promise he showed towards the end of last season, Kirkpatrick has yet to occupy a starter’s role over the course of the season, so we’ve yet to see if he can thrive in this role versus the every-so-often role he’s used to.
The same argument can be made regarding Darqueze Dennard who’s enjoyed substantially less time to learn and has played on defense only a fraction of even Kirkpatrick’s modest numbers. Dennard has impressed coaches since joining the Bengals last year, but until he proves he can be relied upon in the secondary, the question marks will remain.
Then there’s veteran Adam Jones. Jones has been a solid contributor to the secondary and will likely be able to continue this production in the coming season. The level at which Jones should contribute should come with a couple of caveats.
First, Jones shouldn’t be relied upon consistently on the outside. He’s been effective when necessary, but is better in a reserve role. More importantly, the Bengals should make it their goal to avoid relying upon Jones defensively. Doing so would allow Jones to focus on being their primary return man on special teams; a role he thrives in. Jones finished as a First-Team All-Pro in 2014 and there’s no reason he couldn’t do so again this year if allowed to act as the primary returner again this year.
Rounding out the group is a couple of rookies, Josh Shaw and Troy Hill, along with veterans Chris Lewis-Harris, Onterio McCalebb and Brandon Ghee. Obviously, the Bengals will want to ease Shaw and Hill along given their penchant for doing so with rookies, so their impact on the coming season will be minimal at best. McCalebb may as well be a rookie himself given the absence of in-game experience on his resume. And with regards to Lewis-Harris and Ghee, these two players are only depth players at best who won’t likely see the field much nor should be relied upon, and that’s if they make the team.
In summary, the Bengals have a veteran cornerback (Hall) who’s trying to reclaim a form which pre-dated two Achilles’ tears, two unproven cornerbacks (Kirkpatrick and Dennard) who haven’t enjoyed much defensive experience, another veteran (Jones) who’s main focus should be acting as a return man, two rookies (Shaw and Hill), and three veterans who likely offer little going forward (Lewis-Harris, Ghee, McCalebb). Although the group looks solid enough on paper, the Bengals are gambling a bit this year on their secondary being effective despite a litany of reasons to be concerned.