Leading up to the start of training camp for the Cincinnati Bengals on Friday, we’re breaking down each position group.
Today’s look is at the secondary.
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The Bengals have entered each of the last three seasons with a different combination in the secondary. They kept 10 defensive backs (six corners, four safeties) in 2015, nine in 2104 (five corners, four safeties) and 10 in 2013 (five corners, five safeties).
Given the youth and inexperience behind the starters — William Jackson, Clayton Fejedelem and Darius Hillary are rookies; Josh Shaw and Derron Smith second-year guys — the team would seem more likely to keep 10 again this season.
Here are five things to know about the secondary:
Even though Shawn Williams barely played on defense his first two years (three total tackles), he showed enough last year for the Bengals to make two important financial decisions based on his ability and potential.
Letting starting free safety Reggie Nelson walk in free agency was as much of a financial decision as it was a belief in Williams’ ability. But when the team gave Williams a four-year, $20.2 million contract in May, that was purely rooted in the confidence that he can be the player they expected him to be when the team drafted him in the third round in 2013.
Wlliams started four games in 2015 when Nelson and starting safety George Iloka were injured, and he turned in arguably the biggest play of the year with his diving interception of Ben Roethlisberger in the fourth quarter at Pittsburgh, setting up the game-winning score.
Williams wasn’t the only member of the secondary rewarded with a new contract this offseason. Iloka inked a five-year, $30 million deal, and cornerback Adam Jones signed for three years and $22 million.
While Williams (25) and Iloka (26) are still young, Jones will turn 33 in September. But there is no question Jones is playing the best football of his career as his mental ability is progressing faster than his physical prowess is regressing.
Jones, who also remains one of the most dangerous return men in the NFL, earned the first Pro Bowl invitation of his career last season. He had three interceptions for the third year in a row after picking off a total of five passes in his first six seasons combined.
Advanced analytics site ProFootballFocus.com recently ranked all 32 secondaries, and the Bengals came in at No. 11 on the list.
PFF’s Matt Claassen writes, “The Bengals will be going into the season with their least amount of continuity in the secondary in years, with Nelson (Raiders) and Leon Hall (UFA) no longer with the team. Jones turns 33 in September, but he was a top-15 cornerback last year, and has never finished a season with a below-average coverage grade. Kirkpatrick had a rough time in his first year as a starter, grading as the 103rd ranked corner out of 111 qualifying players. Cincinnati should have plenty of opportunities to get Dennard and this year’s first-round draft pick, William Jackson III (University of Houston), involved if they want to get the younger players more playing time.”
The Bengals have made a habit of taking selecting players in the first round who they don’t need to rely on for major contributions right away. Tackle Cedric Ogbuehi (2015) and cornerbacks Dennard (2014) and Kirkpatrick (2012) barely saw the field as rookies
And regardless of round, the Bengals rarely thrust rookie cornerbacks into action. According to ProFootballFocus.com, rookie cornerbacks have taken just 278 snaps for the Bengals since 2010.
That could change in 2016, however, as first-round pick William Jackson could push Kirkpatrick, who struggled in his first year as a starter in 2015. Jackson has been impressive in OTAs and mini camp, and if he continues to shine during training camp, the Bengals will ask him to do more than just contribute on special teams this season.
Shaw, the team’s fifth-round pick in 2015, spent the spring working at both safety and slot corner. Assuming Dennard is healthy after recovering from a season-ending shoulder injury, and all indications are that he is, Dennard will be the slot corner.
Defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle was impressed with Shaw’s play at safety during OTAs and mini camp, so his versatility in the seconday coupled with the solid special teams play he demonstrated in 15 games as a rookie, makes him a sure bet to make the opening 53-man roster again.
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