It's been over two years since the Cincinnati Bengals selected cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick with the 17th overall in the 2012 NFL draft. Since that time, Kirkpatrick has played only 352 total snaps—363 last year and 43 in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
A lingering knee injury limited his contributions in both seasons, as did the Bengals' cornerback depth chart, which boasts other first-round draft picks such as Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones. The team also took a cornerback in Round 1 of the 2014 NFL draft in Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard.
So where does that leave Kirkpatrick this year? Is he destined again to be the odd man out, or will the finally healthy corner take the starting job, as was expected in both 2012 and 2013?
|Dre Kirkpatrick's Bengals Stats|
Over his career, Kirkpatrick has a total of 34 career tackles, one sack, three interceptions, a touchdown and five passes defensed, most of which he compiled in 2013. He also gave up three touchdowns last year and allowed 63.2 percent of passes thrown his direction to be caught, per Pro Football Focus. He's flashed some of the ability he displayed at Alabama, but he's also proven to be quite raw, owing to his limited on-field time while rehabbing his knee.
Still, there's quite the opening for Kirkpatrick this year, despite the veteran cornerbacks in Cincinnati and the rookie Dennard. The main reason for this is the ages of Hall, Newman and Jones, as well as Hall's continued recovery from an Achilles tendon tear that he suffered in October of last year.
Jones will be 31 years old in September, the same month that Newman turns 36. Hall will be 30 years old in December, but his second Achilles tear in three years will impact his effectiveness more than his age will. Though head coach Marvin Lewis said on Tuesday that if training camp began today, Hall would be in uniform, per Coley Harvey of ESPN.com, it's hard to ignore the fact that he's suffered such significant consecutive injuries.
Hall, an underrated corner regardless of his injury history, should reprise his role as a starter this year barring any setbacks. That leaves one starting opening available to Kirkpatrick. Yes, he could work out of the slot and has in the past, but that's not why he was drafted. He was selected as a future starter—ideally Newman's replacement.
But Newman remains a major barrier to Kirkpatrick's path to starting. Newman ranked 19th out of 217 cornerbacks ranked in Pro Football Focus' rankings for 2013, while Kirkpatrick ranked 104th. Though youth is certainly prized at the position, considering the requirement for high-level speed, Kirkpatrick's age won't trump Newman's superior technique. This summer's training camp will be a crucial measure of Kirkpatrick's development, and he needs to significantly close the gap between himself and Newman.
Dennard is also a threat to Kirkpatrick. While a clear motivation for the Bengals to select Dennard this year was the team acknowledging its lack of top-tier, young corners, and while Kirkpatrick himself was pounding the table for more youth at the position, Dennard could cost Kirkpatrick a shot at starting.
According to Harvey, Kirkpatrick said in May, "I actually was telling them that we needed a corner. Those guys are up in age and they're on their last legs. Not to knock those guys. They're going to still continue to work and still continue to compete. But I'm 24 and I'm the youngest one out of the group. We need some young legs to come in here."
While Kirkpatrick got his wish, it might relegate him to a lower spot on the depth chart than he'd like. Dennard has been playing slot cornerback with the first-team defense during OTAs and has been a standout. Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com said he's "looked terrific" and "like a pro."
Though this doesn't affect Kirkpatrick's ability to earn a starting job on the outside, it does mean that if he cannot land what was once Newman's job, getting reps on the inside may no longer be an option. Further, Harvey noted on Wednesday that Dennard has also been playing on the outside, while it appears Kirkpatrick has been playing with the second team.
And, he's not been playing well. Harvey said that Kirkpatrick "struggled to break up passes both deep and short against" receiver and returner Brandon Tate and "also seemed to struggle with figuring out exactly where Tate was going when he made a move." Considering that Tate caught only one pass on two targets last year, that's not a good sign for Kirkpatrick at the moment.
Kirkpatrick is not in any danger of being cut this summer, but he is in danger of edging ever closer to the dreaded B-word: "Bust." With two seasons' worth of NFL experience, Kirkpatrick is still not turning heads on the practice field and isn't working much with the starters. While the time may come where the Bengals are forced to start Kirkpatrick, he doesn't seem ready for the promotion just yet.
He could make the leap from depth player to starter during training camp. That's likely what the Bengals want, because getting younger in the secondary has been a clear goal over the past two years. However, if age is the only advantage Kirkpatrick has over his elder counterparts, he'll be spending most of 2014 watching from the sidelines.
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