Bengals training camp preview: Cornerback

Mike Zimmer's defense is predicated on cornerbacks playing man coverage. A healthy Dre Kirkpatrick would add to his arsenal.

The Bengals open their 2013 training camp next Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium. The team has made the playoffs each of the last two seasons but each time it has been a short-lived trip to Houston for a disappointing end in an AFC wild card game.

The roster is in a solid state and there is no reason to think this team can’t again make another push for the postseason but the expectations are for more than another first-round appearance.

Fox Sports Ohio will take a look at some position battles and areas of interest for the Bengals leading up to training camp with an eye on how things could play out and what it means for the season to come.

Today: You can never have enough cornerbacks

Everything Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer wants do with his unit, all of his schemes and concepts, is predicated on having corners that can cover in man-to-man situations. Yes, the Bengals have one of the best pass rushes in the NFL. The fact that they can get pressure on opposing quarterbacks without having to blitz is a testament to the talent and depth of the defensive line and the job line coach Jay Hayes has done in preparing them but don’t underestimate what a cornerback means for this defense.

When Zimmer arrived in Cincinnati in 2008 he had two corners that fit his needs perfectly in Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph. When the Bengals were unable to re-sign Joseph, who instead left for Houston in free agency, it hurt Zimmer but the team moved on by signing Nate Clements. Last year it was Terence Newman who filled the role opposite of Hall, along with Adam Jones, who had arguably the best season of his career in 2012.

The Bengals drafted Dre Kirkpatrick in the first round last year (No. 17 overall) with the purpose of making him next in line as a Zimmer protégé. After a rookie season that was a near complete loss due to injuries, whether or not Kirkpatrick can find his spot in the defensive backfield remains a question mark. Kirkpatrick was not medically cleared for full participation during OTAs and minicamp following offseason knee surgery but was confident he will be cleared for the start of training camp.

At 6-feet-2, 185 pounds, he is taller than any other cornerbacks the Bengals have and gives them a different style of cover player than the stockier builds of Hall, Newman and Jones or Shaun Prater, a fifth-round pick last year out of Iowa who missed the entire season due to a knee injury suffered early in training camp. While Kirkpatrick played in just five games last season, he spent plenty of time watching the other corners and talking to them about what he’ll need to be able to do once he does get on the field.

“This game is all about patience. You’ve just got to slow the game down. You can’t rush the game because guys are smarter, they’re wiser. You’ve got to slow it down,” said Kirkpatrick during the offseason. “In college some of the guys aren’t as up to speed on things and the athletics aren’t always there. In the pros everybody is on the same level so if you’re rushing, you’re over the line, you’re beat. Any false move you’re going to get beat. It’s all about taking your time, slowing the game down and letting the game come to you.”

The Bengals got little out of their 2012 draft class last season in large part due to injuries and, in some cases, players simply weren’t ready to contribute to a playoff-caliber team; guard Kevin Zeitler, the second of their two first-round picks, is the one exception. Getting Kirkpatrick back healthy and able to play up to expectations would be a boost to the defense and the team. It might even make Zimmer smile.

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