All the early buzz about the Bengals’ upcoming first-round pick has been around offensive tackle and receiver, but is cornerback an option too?
The Cincinnati Bengals suffered mightily with injuries in their secondary in 2020. Trae Waynes, the high profile free agent signing from the Vikings, never played a down, while Darius Phillips and William Jackson III both spent time sidelined.
That meant the Bengals had to rely on the likes of LeShaun Sims and Tony Brown for significant periods of time. It highlighted the lack of depth and the need for clarity regarding the position going into the 2021 season.
The future of current Bengals starters is far from clear
William Jackson has undoubtedly been the Bengals’ most consistent cornerback since being drafted out of Houston in 2017. Despite a small dip in form in 2019, he has been a reliable fixture in the Bengals secondary.
Jackson used his contract year this season to show that he can be considered a lockdown corner. As an upcoming free agent, he will have a strong market awaiting him, should the Bengals fail to agree to a long-term extension.
For now, he would appear to be destined for the franchise tag, paying him as the elite playmaker he is, but punting the contract decision further down the line. This would help the team to focus on resigning the likes of Jessie Bates III and Sam Hubbard while also retaining Jackson.
Waynes’ return from injury does not guarantee improvement
Meanwhile, Trae Waynes signed a three-year, $42 million contract in the offseason. He was one of the highest-profile forays into free agency the Bengals’ front office has made in some time. To their dismay, a pectoral injury in preseason meant that his first year in Cincy was a write-off.
Waynes had a solid career in Minnesota, ranking in PFF’s top 50 for his final two seasons as a Viking. However, he shouldn’t be considered a top tier player at his position, and certainly shouldn’t be anointed a surefire savior for the current group.
The contract structure of means that there is a potential out for the Bengals in 2022. Depending on his performance Cincy could move on with only a $5M dead cap hit. This potentially paves the way for them to draft a young, elite corner in the hope he can develop behind Waynes and Jackson in year one before taking over the year after.
Potential playmakers the Bengals could target
With Mackenzie Alexander and William Jackson impending free agents this year and Darius Phillips and Trae Waynes only guaranteed fixtures for 2021, there appears to be some scope to add young talent to the group. While the issues on offense appear to be a more pressing concern, if the Bengals choose to address these in free agency, could they attack corner at pick five?
If they did, there appear to be two main candidates for the selection. Draft analysts have Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley and Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II as the highest-rated players at the position, seemingly worthy of a top 10 selection.
Farley opted out of playing this season but his tape from the previous year stands him in good stead. He’s a big, physical corner with tons of athletic ability. Having come into college a wide receiver, there will undoubtedly be teething problems as he learns his craft but he has considerable upside, particularly if he spent a year in the wings behind Jackson and Waynes.
In contrast, Surtain has little left to prove at the collegiate level. He has been a stand out player in a championship-caliber defense for three years at Alabama. His NFL bloodlines are clear when you turn on the tape.
Surtain is an ultra-smooth cover corner that is rarely troubled by size or speed, effectively locking down one side of the field when he plays. While he doesn’t get too many chances to make splash plays, he is difficult to get the better of.
Would cornerback be a wise investment for the Bengals?
In most years, it would be prudent for the team to stock up the secondary and take the opportunity to select an elite corner with a top 10 draft pick. However, Zac Taylor is fully on the hot seat in the Queen City next year.
That fact paired with a roster that has some major concerns means cornerback may have to go on the back burner for now. Pressing needs on the offensive and defensive lines will likely take precedent, but remember, it’s not long since the Bengals had a thing for selecting first-round corners. It is a possibility that remains on the table.