2017 Bengals Positional Review: Cornerbacks

CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 24: Kenny Golladay
CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 24: Kenny Golladay /

The Cincinnati Bengals cornerbacks are among the most promising groups in the NFL. Jackson, Kirkpatrick, and Dennard could all make big improvements in 2018.

The Cincinnati Bengals have invested significant first-round draft capital in the cornerback position, and that investment has finally culminated into a successful core. In a conference where Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger are playoff roadblocks, reliable cornerback play is a necessity. The Bengals’ corners certainly did not blow anyone away last season. However, they showed they can be a foundation of this defense. When evaluating the last couple seasons, we should use the statistics as both a growth measurement and a performance indicator.

This cornerback group starts with one guy and one guy alone: William Jackson III. The Bengals first round pick in 2016, Jackson has had limited playing time due to injury. However, he has been unbelievable in the snaps he has played. Jackson ended 2017 with 27 tackles (78% solo) and 1 interception, which was a pick six. The Bengals started the year with Jackson in a reserve role, but they continually added to his workload as the season went on. By the last couple weeks, Jackson was playing starters’ snaps.

Even when Jackson did start though, the Bengals still did not task him with the toughest matchup. However, Jackson took advantage and ranked as Pro Football Focus’ 8th best corner. In some more specific rankings, Jackson graded out as the best corner in football. This includes besting the likes of cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey, Xavier Rhodes, and Patrick Peterson. In what was essentially his rookie year, Jackson demonstrated that he is a cornerstone member of this defense moving forward.

William Jackson may have been the Bengals’ best corner last year, but he was not the number one corner. That designation belonged to Dre Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick inked a 5 year, $52 million contract last offseason, tying up valuable cap space. That contract forced the Bengals to let tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler walk. The expectation was that Kirkpatrick would assume the number one cornerback role and continue his development into an elite player as he had the last couple years.

Kirkpatrick ended the season with 55 tackles (85% solo) and 1 interception – a 101-yard return that he somehow did not convert into a touchdown. He played most of the season taking on the opponent’s toughest receiver but rarely locked them down. Kirkpatrick graded out on PFF as the 89th best corner, which equated to “poor” play. What last season proved is that Kirkpatrick can get overwhelmed by elite WRs. However, he is still clearly talented enough to be a starting cornerback in the NFL.

The last member of the Bengals’ young cornerbacks core is 2014 first round pick, Darqueze Dennard. Seemingly a steal at the time, Dennard spent most of his first couple years riding the pine in Cincinnati. Last season, though, he finally had a breakout season. As the Bengals’ third cornerback option, Dennard played over 70% of defensive snaps last season and made a huge impact as the team’s tackle and interception leader. Dennard compiled 85 tackles (72% solo) and 2 interceptions, one of which was a pick-six. More impressively, Dennard finished as PFF’s 32nd best corner, making him “above average.” Even though he did not face assignments as tough as Kirkpatrick or Jackson, Dennard proved he has developed into a solid NFL cornerback at last.

The last major piece of last year’s team is Adam Jones. Jones has been an excellent player for Cincinnati the last few years, but 2017 was a huge drop-off for him. His age may have finally caught up with him, as Jones was slower and less reactionary last season. Jones ceded the number one cornerback title to Kirkpatrick, but even then, was outplayed by Jackson and Dennard. Eventually, he yielded snaps to both guys by the end of the year. PFF agrees as Jones was not even good enough to make their rankings. Jones was an integral part of many Bengals playoff teams, but his play has dropped off too significantly to stay on the roster.

What changed from 2016

The Bengals did not drastically change their core from 2016 to 2017, although Jackson and Jones essentially flipped roles. Jackson tore a pectoral muscle in training camp and spent the season on IR. Conversely, Adam Jones was the best cornerback on the team and had what was likely his last good season. He led all cornerbacks with 66 tackles (82% solo) and forced two turnovers. Most importantly, Jones was a stabilizing veteran presence on what was a very young group of corners. Jones likely helped Jackson transition to the NFL as well, even though Jackson couldn’t play his rookie season.

Playing opposite Jones, Kirkpatrick had the breakout year that led to his hefty contract. Kirkpatrick tallied 46 tackles (76% solo) and led the team with 3 interceptions. Most crucially, he showed he could consistently lock down the opponent’s secondary pass-catcher. The issue with Kirkpatrick before 2016 was that he came out of position too often, usually because he was overzealous in jumping passing lanes. However, he finally showed more patience, and his success led the Bengals to reward him with a large extension.

Dennard got some run as the third corner in some sets in 2016 as well but was not nearly as effective. He posted similar numbers to Kirkpatrick, but could not shut down opposing receivers nearly as well as Kirkpatrick did. Quarterbacks often targeted Dennard heavily when he was on the field, taking advantage of his lackluster coverage. 2016 was a worrisome year for Dennard, but he proved his usefulness with a breakout year in 2017.

Dennard shared some of his nickel corner duties with Josh Shaw, a 2015 fourth-round pick of the Bengals. Most well-known for his exploits in jumping off a hotel balcony, Shaw actually showed he was an effective reserve in 2016. Going back and forth between corner and safety, Shaw posted 56 tackles (68% solo) and one interception. Though nothing special on the field, Shaw was reliable enough to be the Bengals’ primary reserve. Shaw filled the same role in 2017, but with Dennard’s growth, he did not see as much playing time.

What to look for in 2018

This upcoming season should be another year of growth for these young cornerbacks. Most notably, William Jackson seems to be ready to take on the burden of number one corner. Jackson has been everything the Bengals hoped for and more. Given his success in 2017, Jackson could make the jump to the upper echelon of NFL corners in 2018. Jackson’s future is incredibly bright, and 2018 should be the first year of his established stardom.

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Almost as important to watch is the recovery of Dre Kirkpatrick. The Bengals paid Kirkpatrick starter-level money, and he needs to validate that contract on the field starting next year. Jackson will alleviate some of the pressure by being the number one corner, but Kirkpatrick still needs to improve to his 2016 form. Should Kirkpatrick bounce back and demonstrate why the Bengals financially committed to him, though, he will be a menace for secondary receiving threats. The thought of the tandem of Jackson and Kirkpatrick at their peaks should tantalize all Bengals fans.

The other major storyline to follow among the cornerback core is the performance of Darqueze Dennard in his contract year. Dennard, as noted above, was fairly disappointing before last season, but established himself as a very reliable option in 2017. Likely, Dennard needs to at least maintain his level of play from 2017 to command a competitive offer from the Bengals. On the other hand, the Bengals cannot overcommit to Dennard, given that they have $10 million+ invested in Kirkpatrick and an impending fortune set aside for Jackson. No matter what, Dennard should be a positive contributor next season; hopefully, he will be around for a while.

One last sneaky storyline to follow is the development of KeiVarae Russell. Russell, a Notre Dame product, is an immensely talented corner who has also had myriad off-the-field issues. In one of the most bizarre sequences in recent memory, the Kansas City Chiefs drafted Russell in the third round in 2016, then cut him before that season even began. The Bengals acquired Russell off of waivers but did not play him in 2016. Russell saw the field a bit in 2017, but still played only 4% of defensive snaps. In his third season, it will be interesting to see how the Bengals use him. Hopefully, he has developed enough to the point he is a playable reserve, in a role like Josh Shaw’s.

Draft prospects

I do not expect the Bengals to heavily target a cornerback in this upcoming draft. The Bengals top three cornerbacks are all former first-round picks, so adding another early draft pick to this core seems excessive. Many other needs on this roster are direr. The Bengals do have 11 picks in this draft, so drafting one or two cornerbacks on Day 3 may be a good idea. In that case, I would expect the front office to target a high-upside corner from a Power 5 school. Some solid late-round cornerbacks include Alabama’s Tony Brown, Arizona’s Dane Cruikshank, or Tennessee’s Rashaan Gaulden. Anything earlier seems unlikely.

The only exception to this strategy would be if the front office wholeheartedly believes they cannot re-sign Darqueze Dennard next offseason. In that case, I could understand using a Day 2 pick on Dennard’s potential successor. In that case, the Bengals would likely target a falling talent. One potential option would be Louisville corner, Jaire Alexander. The front office has looked at Alexander as a possible fit for this team. Another intriguing prospect is UCF CB Mike Hughes, who could slip to the Bengals in the second round.

Next: 2017 Bengals positional review: safeties

A few analysts view Hughes as the best corner in this class. The consensus labels him as one of the top-five cornerbacks in this class. Hughes has good athleticism and can play aggressively in press coverage, but still has several kinks to work out. Hughes is the kind of prospect that the Bengals would target should they feel Dennard is not a long-term option. However, I don’t think the Bengals will look this early in the draft for a CB.