Cornerback has long been a strength for the Bengals on defense. Will that trend continue this year, and could the unit improve even more?
As we continue our roster projection series, cornerbacks are up next on the docket. To be honest, cornerback might be the easiest position on the entire roster to project for next season. The Bengals have loaded up on first round corners in the last few years, and just added two more rookies in the fifth round of this year’s draft. Outside of those players, there is very little competition to make the roster at the cornerback position. Still, we will run you through who will make the roster this year.
Headlining the Bengals’ cornerbacks is William Jackson III, last year’s breakout player. The bengals’ 2016 first round pick, he missed his entire rookie year with a torn pec. Jackson didn’t get a ton of playing time to start the 2017 season, but he eventually forced his way into the starting lineup. Over the last half of the season, Jackson may have been the best cornerback in the NFL. In his last 6 games, Jackson allowed only 3 catches for 8 yards. I’m going to repeat that: 3 catches for 8 yards. Jackson is an absolute stud, and looks to grow on last year’s stellar performance.
Starting alongside Jackson are Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard. Kirkpatrick, who had a down year in 2017, should rebound nicely playing outside with Jackson. After a very strong 2016 season, he inked a 5-year, $52 million extension. While his play last year did not back that contract up, Kirkpatrick is still an excellent press corner who can dominate WR2s with his length and quickness.
Dennard, on the other hand, is in the final year of his rookie deal. The Bengals’ first round pick in 2014, Dennard developed slowly in the team’s system. Only last year did Dennard start to unleash his full potential. He led the team in tackles and recorded two interceptions playing primarily out of the slot. Most importantly, Dennard’s analytics looked really strong, as he graded out “above average” in PFF’s rankings. With the extra motivation of a payday, Dennard should have another great season as the Bengals’ slot corner.
The only real question for the Bengals’ cornerbacks is how many they plan on keeping. There are only three other serious contenders to make the roster, so the Bengals have to decide whether they keep all of them or cut one. KeiVarae Russell, Davontae Harris, and Darius Phillips are the next three cornerbacks on this roster. All three have strong draft pedigrees, so in all likelihood, the Bengals will just keep them heading into the season and carry six cornerbacks.
If they were to cut one, I would presume Russell would be the one to go. Russell, a third round pick of the Chiefs from 2016, was shockingly cut from the Kansas City roster before the 2016 season. Character issues seemed to be the cause of his release, but after joining the Bengals, he has alleviated many of those concerns. Unfortunately, he just hasn’t seen much field time playing behind Jackson, Kirkpatrick, Dennard, and Adam Jones. The Bengals may know something about his skills we don’t, but I’d imagine they give the rookies a shot to prove themselves and cut Russell if they have to make a move.
Looking at Harris and Phillips, both should make the team without too much of a sweat. Like I said, I would be surprised if either got the axe before Russell. Harris, a product of FCS Illinois St., had a really good combine, which gave him enough of a boost to be a fifth round pick of the Bengals. Harris has a lot of questions about his speed on the outside and his ability to cover elite WRs. However, he showed his tenacity and bulk at Illinois St., and could be an interesting slot corner for the Bengals. Harris should rotate in with Dennard at some points this season.
Phillips is an entirely different player from Harris. Also a fifth round pick this year (out of Western Michigan), Phillips showed he had game-changing ability. A convert from receiver, he has unbelievable ball skills, which would explain his 9 defensive touchdowns. Phillips just seems to have a knack for interceptions and touchdowns – an incredibly useful situational skill. He still needs to develop better technique, but his speed and ball skills are definitely NFL-caliber. Phillips also may provide some value as a kick and punt returner.
To review, the Bengals will likely have six cornerbacks on the roster going into 2018: William Jackson III, Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard, KeiVarae Russell, Davontae Harris, and Darius Phillips. This core of cornerbacks has the potential to be among the NFL’s best next season. Jackson has quickly blossomed into and elite corner, and Kirkpatrick and Dennard are both top 40 cornerbacks. Add in the contributions of the other three guys, and this group is really solid. I’m very optimistic about the Bengals’ secondary this year.