COMMENTARY | The Cincinnati Bengals have to find a way to get 2012 first round pick Dre Kirkpatrick on the field and keep him there in order for the Bengals to reach the playoffs for a third straight season.
Cincinnati once again has a question mark across from veteran cornerback Leon Hall in the secondary. After essentially missing the duration of his rookie season thanks to injury, Kirkpatrick has to be the answer.
It's not as if Kirkpatrick isn't talented enough. Coming out of Alabama the only knock on Kirkpatrick was his ability to backpedal at an NFL level and contribute efficiently in zone coverage.
Kirkpatrick won't have to worry about the zone coverage issue in Cincinnati much with defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer mostly relying on physical man coverages; hence the reason Kirkpatrick was the pick in the first round.
Let's break down three reasons Kirkpatrick has to be the starter for Cincinnati in 2013.
Outside of Hall the Bengals don't have a lot of starter-caliber players. Kirkpatrick has the potential, but behind him it's a bit of a mess.
Cincinnati does have Adam Jones, a man who stepped up in Hall's absence a few years ago when he tore his Achilles, but with his recent legal troubles once again and nagging injuries it's hard to figure out if and how long he'll be able to contribute.
Brandon Ghee continues to impress in practices, but that's been the story the last few years before he succumbs to injury. Second-year player Shaun Prater has some nice qualities but is going to need more time to develop. Veteran Terence Newman is slowing down thanks to his age as we have seen over the past few years with his coverage issues.
This is why Kirkpatrick's contributions in 2013 are so important. The depth simply isn't there. It looks much better than it is on paper but the experience and injury reliability is an issue.
Critical Game Experience
Kirkpatrick has to see the field in order to gain serious experience as there is only so much that can be accomplished in practice and drills.
There is plenty veterans like Hall and Newman can teach Kirkpatrick but until he gets out there on his own and is isolated with a top-tier NFL receiver he is going to be at a disadvantage.
Yes, the preseason will allow Kirkpatrick to do some of this. Also, he did play in the closest thing to the pros in the SEC while at Alabama, but until he experiences NFL speed at full blast his adjustment period will continue to move at a snail's pace.
It's no secret year in and out the Bengals have an elite defensive unit overall thanks to the mastermind that is Zimmer.
With that in mind it's a safe bet Zimmer will schematically find a way to protect Kirkpatrick if he is struggling to adapt. Zimmer is the guy who over the years has taken scrap-heap players and meshed them into an elite caliber unit.
We know the defensive line will be fine. Linebacker seems to be in good hands with James Harrison and Vontaze Burfict assumingly protecting Rey Maualuga in the middle. Corner is fine with Hall on the outside and Jones in the slot. Safety has an elite player in Reggie Nelson and either an effective rookie in Shawn Williams or potentially a seasoned vet in Newman.
If Kirkpatrick is the only weak link on the unit while he adapts and hones his skills the unit overall will be just fine. You can do much worse than a first-round talent out of Alabama who is struggling with his transition but who can still thrive on his exceptional athleticism.
There's really no reason for Kirkpatrick to not start in 2013. He's been soaking up as much knowledge as possible from veterans while recovering from injuries.
It's time for Kirkpatrick to assume his starting role.
Chris Roling is a graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. His work has appeared on Bleacher Report, Fansided, The Cincinnati Enquirer and more. He is the co-host of a Cincinnati Bengals podcast, @BengalsCentral
You can follow Chris on Twitter @Chris_Roling
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