The lack of depth at cornerback is beginning to show after third-corner David Jones needed a screw inserted to assist a stress fracture in his foot. With Jones out four to six weeks with an injury that may linger and nag him for months once he does return, the Bengals will be forced to take a closer look at rookies Trent Morgan and local guy, Rico Murray, to compete with the long-toothed Jamar Fletcher for the third-corner spot. Also in that mix is Geoffrey Pope; a predominantly special-teams player that the Bengals picked up right after training camp last season.
The presumption seems to be that starting free-safety Chris Crocker will slide into the nickel spot against three-receiver sets and be able to handle slot-receivers adequately. Crocker is a safety for a reason; he hits people and reads coverages well. He certainly seems to be the most capable safety on the team to make the switch to corner in a pinch, but I wouldn’t call him a sure thing there.
Even with Crocker in the nickel spot, the team would still be left with backup Marvin White to play at safety. White has shown some instincts for hitting, but he’s been caught out of position on some big plays against the Bengals. New safety Roy Williams also excels at tackling, but has also fallen victim to the big play.
If Fletcher is forced to play, he might be able to still produce. It’s true that the Bengals are his fifth team and that he was signed mid-season last year, but once he suited up and hit the field, he made some nice plays and covered well. Still he’s up there in years, and he needs to show he’s fast enough to run with the younger dogs.
Undrafted rookie free agent Rico Murray is a much longer shot to make the team than sixth-round pick, Trent Morgan, but both will have to prove their worth on special teams to really get Marvin Lewis’ attention. Nonetheless, the injury to Jones certainly has not hurt either rookies’ chance of being here Week 1. The team will need bodies, and may even reach out to the recently cut Simeon Castille for practice-squad purposes.
And if one of the starting corners became injured, what then? Jamar Fletcher starts and opposing offensive coordinators grin to themselves, that’s what. Or untested rookies match up against starting receivers. After all, Jonathon Joseph suffered two foot injuries last season, and cornerbacks need their feet. Joseph and Hall are solid when they play, but the Bengals are a few tweaked hamstrings or a key turned ankle away from a living disaster at corner.
The free-agent market for corners these days consists of guys who have played a decade or more and probably can’t run all that well anymore—not unlike Fletcher— or backups who were taking up good locker space elsewhere. Either way, no quick fix currently orbits the NFL, and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is stuck with what he’s got.
Hopefully, a newfound pass-rush and an ability to stop the run will take the pressure off of this whole discussion and everyone will forget who the backup cornerbacks are in the first place.