The Cincinnati Bengals had one of the most impressively deep and talented secondaries in the NFL this past season. The style of play from each defensive back complemented the other perfectly and played a major role in helping the unit to their second successive playoff appearance. Even though first round draft pick Dre Kirkpatrick barely featured throughout the whole year, a rag-tag bunch of veterans and a returning superstar all contributed in ways that nobody expected them to prior to the season. Along with Leon Hall, who returned from a torn Achilles suffered during the previous season, the Bengals got excellent play from free agent addition Terence Newman, as well as team veterans Adam Jones, Nate Clements, Reggie Nelson and Chris Crocker.
Only one negative exists with the production this unit managed. All outside of Nelson and Hall are unrestricted free agents this off-season. Furthermore, the Bengals have no clue what to expect from Kirkpatrick in his second season. Through no real fault of his own, the Bengals saw very little of Kirkpatrick in game action. Obviously the Bengals have belief in Kirkpatrick, after all they did draft him in the first round last year, but they must understand what he can contribute immediately next year in order to sustain their current abilities while not curtailing the development of their young star.
Of the group of prospective free agents, Newman played the most last year as he started every game. He finished the year with 75 tackles, two interceptions, a forced fumble and 10 pass deflections. It would seemingly be a simple decision to re-sign Newman, but considering that he is 34 and could see some interest from others in a similar role, the Bengals could be reluctant to commit the amount of money to him that will be required to sign him. Re-signing Newman would only be for one, or at most two seasons. He has very little left when it comes to longevity, but offers the consistency of a veteran in the short-term that Kirkpatrick likely doesn’t.
By just signing Newman, the Bengals would be expecting Kirkpatrick to fill a nickel role, something that Jones carried out excellently this past season.
Although Newman excelled as the team’s starter, Jones could be the more attractive proposition. Jones is much younger at 29 and finished last season with 40 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and nine pass deflections. Importantly, he also played a major role on special teams. Jones finished the year with 26 punt returns averaging over 11 yards per return, one touchdown and two returns longer than 40 yards. His ability to alter field position was very valuable for the Bengals throughout the year. Jones is in a similar position to Newman on the free agent market. He won’t be pursued as a starter, but will be a very attractive role player for more teams than just the Bengals. He should be able to choose the best deal that is offered to him, rather than take whatever the Bengals offer him.
Clements and Crocker spent as much time on defense as Jones, but neither offered up any impact on special teams. Clements showed good versatility to flip between cornerback and safety, but never really played to his abilities on a consistent basis. Crocker had a solid year as the team’s starting safety, but depending on what direction they want to go in at the position, he could also be on his way out this off-season.
The Bengals have a lot of difficult decisions to make with their free agents on the back-end of their defense.