Cincinnati Bengals draft preview: The top 5 defensive back prospects

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 7: Denzel Ward #12 of the Ohio State Buckeyes hits Taivon Jacobs #12 of the Maryland Terrapins after a reception in the first quarter at Ohio Stadium on October 7, 2017 in Columbus, Ohio. Ward was ejected from the game after being assessed a targeting penalty for the hit. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

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COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 7: Denzel Ward #12 of the Ohio State Buckeyes hits Taivon Jacobs #12 of the Maryland Terrapins after a reception in the first quarter at Ohio Stadium on October 7, 2017 in Columbus, Ohio. Ward was ejected from the game after being assessed a targeting penalty for the hit. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Since 2012 the Cincinnati Bengals have spent a first-round pick on a cornerback every even year, signaling how important the franchise thinks it is to keep that position stocked to stay competitive in the pass-first NFL.

It began with Dre Kirkpatrick in 2012, followed by Darqueze Dennard in 2014 and William Jackson in 2016.

All three of them are still on the roster, but adding another first-rounder to the mix isn’t out of the question, especially with the team opting to exercise the option year on Adam Jones’ contract.

The Bengals also took cornerbacks in the first round in back-to-back years in 2006 (Johnathan Joseph) and 2007 (Leon Hall), meaning it’s happened five times in the last 12 drafts.

Bolstering the secondary certainly will be a focus this year, but the higher priority is at safety. New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin had talked about using more three-safety sets, and current starters George Iloka and Shawn Williams are coming off average seasons.

The Bengals have never drafted a safety in the first round, and Williams, a third rounder in 2014, is the only safety the team has drafted before the fifth round in the last 10 drafts.

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But the team made a run at Kurt Coleman in free agency and recently had Eric Reid in for a visit, so it’s clear they are interested in upgrading the position.

Between their recent history with cornerbacks and the current need at safety, there is a good chance the Bengals address the secondary with the 21st pick in the draft later this month, although the top two safeties in the draft class are expected to be gone before the Bengals are on the clock.

Here is a look at the top defensive backs available using a composite ranking from a number of scouts:

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Safety, Alabama (6-foot, 204 pounds)

Fitzpatrick can play corner or safety, something he proved in lining up everywhere in the Alabama secondary while starting all three seasons. He was a Freshman All-American in 2015 and a first team All-SEC pick and All-American the last two years, along with winning the Chuck Bednarik Award (given to the nation’s top defender) and Jim Thorpe Award (top defensive back) in 2017. The only other players to win both were Charles Woodson and Patrick Peterson.

Lance Zierlein, "Fitzpatrick turns up the intensity level as high as it will go and and rips off the knob until the game is over. Fitzpatrick has experience as a slot cornerback, but will likely be targeted as a "do-everything" safety who can be deployed as a sub-package linebacker, a blitzer or in the slot against big receivers and move tight ends. Fitzpatrick has consistently shined since his freshman season on Alabama defenses that have been loaded with NFL talent. His versatility, football character and desire to succeed should make him an early starter."

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Denzel Ward, Cornerback, Ohio State (5-foot-10, 183 pounds)

Ward won state championships in football and track (200-meter dash) at Macedonia High School before learning behind former OSU corners Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley. When both of them went to the NFL as first-round picks, Ward stepped into a starting role as a junior in 2017 and led the team in pass breakups. He elected to give up his senior season to enter the draft.

Charlie Campbell, Walter Football: "At the NFL Scouting Combine, Ward ran very fast, showing the quickness to run with speed receivers. However, Ward's height and weight hurt him with some teams. Some sources love Ward and have him as the top cornerback as well as being one of the best defensive prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft. Other teams feel Ward is too undersized and prefer other corners. Ward has good speed, athleticism, ball skills, and quick feet to run the route to prevent separation. He looks like a future starter and could have No. 1 corner potential. While he is shorter than ideal, Ward is very good at blanketing receivers and keeping them from getting open."

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Derwin James, Safety, Florida State (6-foot-1, 215 pounds)

One of the top recruits in the country coming out of high school, James took over as a starter five games into his freshman Season at FSU. A knee injury ended his year two games into his sophomore season, but James came back in 2017 and led the team in passes defended and interceptions while earning first team All-ACC honors. He elected to skip his final two years of eligibility (he received a medical redshirt for the lost 2016 campaign) and enter the draft.

Dane Brugler, "Explosive movement skills to start, stop and redirect in a fluid motion…covers a ton of green when he unlocks and sprints…controlled burst with multiple gears to close in a flash…uses his athleticism to be an impact blitzer off the edge…avoids blocks with his speed to mirror, surprising screen targets when he arrives with the ball…cover awareness to understand what is going on…body control to make impressive plays on the ball…Showcased his speed on special teams as a kick returner, averaging 28.3 yards per return (6/170/0) – returned a kick 100+ yards (Sept. 2017), but it was nullified due to a penalty…also blocked a field goal attempt (Nov. 2017)…playmaker with the ball in his hands, averaging 13.7 yards per interception return with one touchdown (3/41/1)…position versatility with experience at every position in the back-seven."

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Josh Jackson, Cornerback, Iowa (6-foot, 196 pounds)

Lightly recruited out of high school, Jackson moved from receiver to corner after a redshirt freshman year and worked his way up to a starter as a junior in 2017 after two seasons as a backup. His 26 passes defended and eight interceptions were the most in the FBS, and he was a unanimous All-American and the Big 10’s Defensive Back of the year and a first-team all-league selection. He also was a Thorpe Award finalist.

Sam Monson, Pro Football Focus: "Jackson broke out with a huge season in 2017, not just leading all corners in overall PFF grade in 2017, but he had the highest grade we have seen from any of the corners in this class across their entire college careers. He allowed an NFL passer rating of just 36.5 when targeted on 91 passes, a lower mark than if the quarterback had just thrown the ball at the dirt every play instead. He is also extremely young at the position, having only moved to corner in 2015, so his potential is sky high."

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Mike Hughes, Cornerback, Central Florida (5-foot-10, 189 pounds)

Hughes ran for seven touchdowns in final high school game, capping a North Carolina state championship and 15-0 record. He had offers from Ohio State and Clemson but stayed home to attend North Carolina but eventually left the school after an off-field incident and suspension. He played one season at a community college, where he earned All-American honors and earned his associate’s degree, before enrolling at UCF. He took over as a starter a few games into the season and finished with 15 passes defended and four interceptions while being named first team All-AAC. He also earned All-American accolades as a returner and decided to skip his senior season and enter the draft.

Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN: "Hughes emerged as a shutdown corner in his lone season at Central Florida, showing good anticipation in coverage and playing the run well, too. At 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, Hughes has good size, and he's exceptionally fast. He had four interceptions this season, including one pick-six. Hughes is also a phenomenal punt and kick returner — he had three more touchdowns on returns. The arrow is pointing way up on Hughes, who really came out of nowhere after playing at North Carolina in 2015 and a junior college in 2016."

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