SB Nation is taking a look at the NFL's most notable underachievers, the players who failed to live up to big expectations in 2013, and exploring whether or not they can turn things around in 2014.
When it comes to coaching cornerbacks, few do it better than Mike Zimmer. The new Minnesota head coach has long been one of the top secondary coaches in football, skilled at maximizing the talent of his players. When the Bengals signed unwanted players off the street like Adam Jones and an aging Terence Newman, Zimmer helped mold them into solid contributors. When Cincinnati brought in premium talent like Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, Zimmer turned them into All-Pros. With seldom exception, cornerbacks played to their full potential with Zimmer's guidance.
Dre Kirkpatrick was the exception.
The No. 17 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Kirkpatrick went to Cincinnati with the pedigree of Hall and Joseph. Not only has he failed to reach the heights they did, he has struggled to even get on the field. Now, Zimmer is in Minnesota, the Bengals have a new first-round cornerback and Kirkpatrick is fighting an uphill battle for playing time and possibly losing grip on his NFL career.
Photo credit: Joe Robbins
How he got here
While Zimmer continually develops corners at the NFL level, Alabama coach Nick Saban has built a cornerback factory in Tuscaloosa. Nearly every year, the Crimson Tide produce a first-round caliber cornerback prospect. In 2012, Kirkpatrick was the latest and greatest from Alabama. That doesn't, however, mean Alabama produces NFL-ready corners. When Kirkpatrick first arrived in Cincinnati he had to learn to backpedal, something he wasn't asked to do in college.
Like all players, Kirkpatrick was faced with acclimating to the NFL from college. Then the injuries hit. He sat out some offseason workouts as a rookie due to a groin injury. He then suffered a knee injury in training camp. While it initially appeared the injury wouldn't keep him out long, he suffered a setback and didn't make his NFL debut until Week 9. He played a limited role in five games before landing on injured reserve.
The knee injury lingered into the offseason, but Kirkpatrick started the 2013 season healthy. The problem was there was no playing time available. Hall, Jones and Newman had firm holds on the top spots on the depth chart, leaving just a handful of snaps each game for Kirkpatrick. He didn't get consistent playing time until Hall tore his Achilles' tendon late in the year. Kirkpatrick moved into the starting lineup, but struggled. According to Pro Football Focus, he earned a minus-9.8 rating for the season, including minus-8.0 in his four games as a starter.
He had his moments last season, including a nifty interception against San Diego in Week 13 and a strong performance against Baltimore in Week 17. As a whole, however, he struggled. He allowed 24 receptions on 38 targets, according to PFF with receivers averaging 12.5 yards per catch against him. That included a 74-yard touchdown reception by Josh Gordon.
There have been flashes of solid play, but injuries and a slow adjustment to the NFL have made them too few and far between. That fact hasn't been lost on Kirkpatrick.
"I just had to sit back and soak it all in. I didn't want to talk about it," Kirkpatrick said after intercepting Philip Rivers in Week 13, via the Cincinnati Enquirer. "It was nothing but another play. But to me, I haven't made a play like that in three years."
Kirkpatrick played 406 defensive snaps in two years, according to Cincy Jungle, with 232 of those coming in the final four games when Newman and Hall were out due to injury. Getting on the field has been a challenge and one that will only get bigger. While they are aging, Hall, Newman and Jones will return atop the depth chart next season. The Bengals drafted Darqueze Dennard in the first round, adding even more competition for snaps. The shine of Kirkpatrick's first-round status has long faded.
Labeling Kirkpatrick a bust following two injury-riddled and lackluster seasons is probably a bit harsh. The knee injury and subsequent setback in 2012 weren't his fault. You can give him a pass for his first year then grade him on a curve for last season when he was essentially a rookie. That's all fine, but there is a limit. Unfortunate injuries are only an excuse for so long. Eventually the lack of production is the only thing that matters.
Heading into his third year, there aren't many free passes left for Kirkpatrick. His spot on the roster is no longer guaranteed by his draft status, and so he needs to start producing on the field. That means beating out Jones or Newman for playing time. If Hall, Newman and Jones continue to receive playing time ahead of him, and Dennard makes a quick adjustment to the NFL, Kirkpatrick will be fifth string, with only a recognizable name keeping him from being a depth chart casualty.
With Kirkpatrick's path to playing time crowded at corner, Jason Marcum of Cincy Jungle wrote that now might be the time for Kirkpatrick to make the switch to safety:
Strictly playing cornerback is something Dre has struggled with to this point in his career.
There's still time for him to improve, but indications in OTAs are he's not improving as much as he should be. If he continues to struggle playing corner this year, it may be time to find another role for him, and safety could be one to consider.
Hall is coming off a serious injury, Newman is 35 years old and Jones is 30 and probably best suited for a sub package role. The Bengals need Kirkpatrick and Dennard to be good and become long-term pieces in the secondary. It's easy to give a player a pass when he isn't really needed. But Hall and Newman can't play forever, and eventually replacements will be needed. That could be this season, and if Kirkpatrick isn't up to the task, he may not get another chance.
While he may not be playing for a roster spot this season, Kirkpatrick is playing to establish himself as a legitimate NFL player and secure a spot on the team and in the league for the long-term. Another unproductive season won't leave much leash on his career.
Can he succeed in 2014?
Although Kirkpatrick has underperformed compared to his draft status, it hasn't all been due to the inability to play at the NFL level. A lot of his problems have been about getting on the field. When he has played, he has shown flashes of being a solid NFL player, and even in his low moments, he hasn't been horrid. Has he been good enough to start for most NFL teams? No, but he hasn't been a complete liability, either.
It all comes down to taking the next step. At 24 years old, he's entering what should be the peak of his career. He isn't dealing with any injuries this offseason and has been going through offseason workouts. The excuses that gave him a pass in previous seasons are no more. That said, it will be an uphill battle for Kirkpatrick to establish himself next year. He's not off to the best start, according to ESPN's Coley Harvey:
Brandon Tate also had a strong showing during the practice, catching most everything thrown his way. Often he was matched against cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who struggled to break up passes both deep and short against him. Kirkpatrick also seemed to struggle with figuring out exactly where Tate was going when he made a move. Perhaps it's simply springtime adjustments, but Kirkpatrick certainly will be one to keep an eye on as Cincinnati continues tweaking its deep cornerback group.
Despite the apparent struggles, Marvin Lewis and new defensive backs coach Vance Joseph have praised the work Kirkpatrick has put in. He's taking the right steps and saying the right things. If he can stay healthy, and that's a legitimate if, he should be in line for the best season of his career. If not, that bust label that has been thrown around will become appropriate.