Left Cornerback: Chidobe Awuzie
This surprises no one, right? Chidobe Awuzie was a good player when he played in Dallas, but in Cincinnati, he has blossomed into a bona fide star. He earned an 83.3 grade from Pro Football Focus and was clearly the Bengals’ top cover man this past season. The defense is an entirely different unit when he’s not on the field.
Right Cornerback: Eli Apple
Many Bengals fans are probably hoping that second-rounder Cam Taylor-Britt wins this job, but it’s probably going to be held down by Eli Apple for at least the early part of the season.
For all of his shortcomings, Apple was a more than adequate No. 2 corner last year (especially at his cost) and was actually best in the NFL in man coverage.
The problem, of course, is that the Bengals primarily play zone. Still, this is a talented player who was a Top 10 draft pick not so long ago.
As the incumbent, he’s going to be given every opportunity to keep his starting job. Sure, he gave up a touchdown to Cooper Kupp in the Super Bowl last year but the list of guys who gave up a touchdown to Kupp last year is pretty long – the dude had 22 combined receiving touchdowns last season. Nearly every cornerback who tried to cover him gave up a touchdown.
Eli Apple is perfectly adequate for what he is: a #2 corner on a reasonable contract of just $4 million.
Nickelback: Mike Hilton
Mike Hilton is a stellar nickel corner who brings a tenacious physicality that the team had been lacking at the position prior to the 2021 season. Signing him away from the rival Pittsburgh Steelers last offseason weakened a division rival and helped turn the Bengals into AFC champs.
There really aren’t any challengers to Hilton’s spot on the depth chart other than Daxton Hill, who has the versatility to play nickel corner but is probably better suited at safety.
Strong Safety: Vonn Bell
While the Bengals drafted potential replacements for Vonn Bell in Tycen Anderson and/or Daxton Hill, Bell’s role is safe for 2022.
The dude wears the captain’s “C” for a reason. His contributions to this team go far beyond what you see on the field. He is a respected voice in the locker room and, along with Sammy Hubbard, leads the defense. Bell’s contract is up after this season, though, so this may be the last hurrah for him in the Queen City.
Free Safety: Jessie Bates
We’ve already written extensively about how Bates has no leverage in his contract dispute. He can either play for the Bengals this season, or play for no one.
Barring a trade, he is likely to suit up for the Bengals in Week 1. Daxton Hill should be the long-term future at the position for the Bengals, but for 2022, this is the Jessie Bates show.
Hopefully, he will ball out this season and earn himself that monster payday he’s always wanted in 2023.
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These are the likely starters for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2022.