The youthful Cincinnati Bengals defense continued their improvement in 2011. Their consistent play was a major reason for the team's winning record and playoff berth. In a division defined by defenses, the Bengals must improve their secondary play if they are going to stay among the NFL's elite. With two first round draft picks, it's quite possible that the Bengals may use one of them to make upgrades in that area.
The secondary was already an area for concern before 2011 even began. The Bengals signed veteran Nate Clements to take the place of the departed Johnathan Joseph and tried to bring on Donte Whitner at safety. When Whitner bolted for San Francisco at the last moment, a deal was worked out that brought Taylor Mays to Cincinnati. They also added cornerback Kelly Jennings from Seattle.
The Bengals finished ninth in the NFL against the pass, but down the stretch, it was their inconsistency which hurt the team. Against both Baltimore and Houston, miscommunications and blown coverages hurt the team in key situations. In particular, Chris Crocker's safety play left a lot to be desired. With that in mind along with Clements' age and Leon Hall coming back from an Achilles injury, finding a player in the secondary will be high on the Bengals' list for the 2012 draft.
At cornerback, both the "can't miss" prospects, LSU's Morris Claiborne and Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick, will probably be gone by the time the Bengals pick at 17. A couple of other prospects will probably be there, however.
One is North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins. If Jenkins' name sounds familiar, that's because he started for three years at Florida before arrests for marijuana got him kicked off the team. While there, he faced Bengals WR AJ Green three times. Green didn't get over 100 yards in any of those matchups. Jenkins also excelled as a return man in college.
The other solid choice would be Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard. Dennard didn't face that many explosive receivers in the Big 10, but the two he did, Michigan State's BJ Cunningham and Iowa's Marvin McNutt, were completely blanketed by Dennard.
The downside on both of these players is their size. Both are under six feet, and in an era of big receivers like Green and Calvin Johnson, size is becoming more important with cornerbacks. With Hall also being on the smaller side, the Bengals might look to add more size at that position. This draft does have some depth at the position, so it's quite possible multiple picks might be made there.
One "under the radar" possibility would be Coastal Carolina's Josh Norman. The Bengals have shown some love for that school in the past, selecting Jerome Simpson in the second round. Norman has size at 6'2" and was very impressive at this week's East-West Shrine game. For pure size and speed, he has first round talent. Some team could get a steal with him in a later round.
At safety, Chris Crocker, who turns 32 this year, is clearly losing a step. Mark Barron from Alabama could be available late in the first round. If the Bengals opt to choose a safety in the later rounds, a dark horse candidate would be Kentucky's Winston Guy. Both have reputations for being good run stoppers and heavy hitters. Paired with Reggie Nelson, the Bengals could put some fear in opposing wide receivers and tight ends coming over the middle.
The Bengals were able to plug some holes in their secondary for 2011, but didn't answer any of the long-term questions. They'll need to answer some of those questions with their choices in the 2012 NFL draft.
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