Let’s give credit to the frugal Cincinnati Bengals for opening their wallets. In a depleted secondary that allowed an average of 244.2 passing yards per game last season, Mike Brown elected to address the concern at one of the league’s top positions. In 2020, the Bengals looked to improve their cornerbacks significantly.
After signing three new defenders, the Cincinnati back end will look different than in year’s past. With the additions of Minnesota’s Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, man coverage’s stability should improve. Additionally, a bounce-back year from William Jackson III could do wonders in a division that features a plethora of young talent at wide receiver.
Position Breakdown: 2020 Cincinnati Bengals Cornerbacks
A secondary is no longer complete without a premier cornerback. For the Bengals, they’ll be banking on the former first-rounder Jackson to figure things out in Year 4. After a breakout season in 2018, injuries have derailed him from making an impact as one of the league’s top cover men.
More importantly, Cincinnati added veteran talent with postseason experience. Hoping to take that next leap in Lou Anarumo’s defense, players like Alexander and Waynes will need to live up to their deals. If not, young talent such as Darius Phillips could see a more prominent role moving past this year.
Key Player to Watch: William Jackson III’s recovery
Jackson was one of the rising stars from the 2016 Draft class after his first full season in 2017. The former Houston product finished with 68 tackles, 27 pass deflections, and an interception over two seasons after missing his rookie season with a torn pectoral muscle. The injury bug caught Jackson last season as he missed two games with a lingering shoulder problem.
“He’s coming off that shoulder [injury], so I want him to stay healthy. And I want him to be consistent,” Anarumo said. “That’s all any of us want, especially in the back end. If you’re a consistent player, you’ll play in this league [for] a long time. He’s got great God-given ability. He has to do it on every snap.”
Expectations are high for Jackson as he enters a contract year. Overall, his biggest concern is his consistency, when healthy, in coverage, and whether he can be effective against the run. Cincinnati is known for refusing to give up on first-round talent, so let’s see if a healthy season could benefit Jackson in coverage.
The talent is there, just not the consistency. Finding a balance of both could do wonders for all parties.
Who will step in at outside cornerback for the injured Trae Waynes?
For anyone hoping to see if Waynes would live up to his lucrative three-year $42 million contract, they’ll be forced to wait. The team announced Tuesday that the former Viking suffered a torn pectoral injury that could leave him out for up to two months.
“I don’t want to get into too many details right now,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said during the team’s new conference. “It’s unfortunate. He was working hard for us. Again, these things happen. It’s nobody’s fault. We just move on, get him healthy, and back on the field.”
The show must go on, but who will step up in Waynes’ absence? Look for the aforementioned Phillips to grab the first opportunity after a resurgence in 2018. The former Western Michigan standout led the team in interceptions (4) but also found most of his success lining up against the slot receiver.
The Bengals also added LeShaun Sims and CFL star Winston Rose, who tallied 14 interceptions in 36 games. If neither can produce, Cincinnati might be forced to move Alexander to the outside or test the free-agent waters for a cheap unreliable option.
Wild Card: Alexander No. 1 role
Sometimes playing the slot cornerback role no longer means you’re the third option. Alexander, who shined in the middle for the Vikings, might be bringing that mentality to “The Jungle” against those shifty slot receivers.
“He can do both,” Taylor said of Alexander’s ability. “He’s a heck of a nickel: really solid tackler, really confident, has great pattern recognition, good energy out there on the field. So he’s a guy that we’re really counting on for our defense this year.”
Alexander is best used as a run defender but can make an impact in pass coverage. Each season in Minnesota, he became more well-rounded in coverage while maintaining his physical presence. Throw in his blitzing skills, and this is a do-it-all defender that should be stable in the middle of the Bengals’ backline.
On a one-year deal, Alexander can earn more while building his reputation as one of the prime slot corners. When you look at slot receivers in the AFC North (Jarvis Landry, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquise Brown), Alexander might be doing more than covering just another slot option. If he can perform well in 2020, then he could be in for a lucrative contract next offseason.
Overview: Good questions, still questions
The Bengals’ entire defense is an enigma, but the cornerback position will be tough to evaluate early in 2020. Before Waynes’ injury, the starters looked promising with potential in depth. With the news, there’s a lingering issue on the outside that might not be filled until midseason.
Alexander should thrive in the slot with multiple roles. A rebound by Jackson should only benefit him in contract negotiations. If Phillips can build off a promising sophomore season, he’ll be much more valuable to the defensive backfield. Waynes’ injury puts a damper on the signings, but the Bengals have the potential to be better than a year ago, making them a much more complete unit.