LOS ANGELES -- Because the Patriots now find themselves in the unusual position of looking up at the Bengals in the AFC, we're in the unusual position of analyzing the Bengals to find out which parts of their winning formula the Patriots may try to adopt moving forward.
The Patriots may want to add talent at receiver. They may want to steer away from a run-first approach. Those things make sense given how the game is played in 2022 and where it seems to be going.
But what about defensively? Would the Patriots ever take their cues from Cincinnati in that regard? Because what the Bengals have done on that side of the ball, getting all the way to the Super Bowl, is nothing short of remarkable.
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The Bengals don't have much in the way of star power at one of the game's most valuable defensive positions -- cornerback -- and yet they're 60 minutes away from a championship. How? And would the Patriots, who could see J.C. Jackson leave for greener pastures via free agency, ever try to follow a similar model?
The Bengals finished the regular season 17th in points allowed per game and 18th in yards allowed per game. They were 22nd in yards allowed per pass attempt and 18th in quarterback rating allowed.
Not what you're looking for, generally speaking.
But they stood up in key situations, as some of the more advanced metrics would suggest. The Bengals were 10th in EPA on the defensive side and 12th in success rate. They were ninth in dropback EPA and 13th in rush EPA. And they did it without a single household name at corner. The closest thing they have to a household name anywhere on their defense would be with Trey Hendrickson, a mauling defensive end who made his first Pro Bowl this year.
"The Bengals don't have that guy (at corner)," three-time Pro Bowl corner DeAngelo Hall said this week. "I don't think you have to have a No. 1 corner to make it to a Super Bowl. I remember talking to Deion Sanders about it and he said having a lockdown corner is kind of a luxury. It's not a necessity. You don't have to have it. It just makes your job a little bit easier when you have a guy that you know can take away one guy.
"But in this league? A lot of teams have more than one guy. So yeah it really don't matter if you got one guy (at corner). Jalen [Ramsey] is going to take out Ja'Marr Chase? That's fine. But they better figure out a way to guard Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd as well. That's kind of the Rubik's Cube equation you gotta try to solve."
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Though the Bengals may not have a star corner, no huge earners there, that doesn't mean they haven't received strong corner play.
Chidobe Awuzie (on a deal that pays him $7.25 million per year) graded out as Pro Football Focus' second-best corner this year behind only Ramsey (and just ahead of No. 3 J.C. Jackson). Slot corner Mike Hilton ($6 million per year) is among the best in football at his position and ranked 17th overall by PFF. Eli Apple ($1.2 million) was a failed first-round pick for the Giants back in 2016 who's now on his fourth team, but he ranks inside PFF's top-60, grading out as their No. 59 corner.
And the Bengals aren't alone in reaching great heights without a corner who has the reputation of being a lockdown guy. The Rams have Ramsey, but the Niners nearly made it to Los Angeles with Emmanuel Moseley (undrafted in 2018) and Ambry Thomas (rookie third-rounder) at corner. The Bucs have struggled to find capable corners all season as they coped with injury. The Bills made it to the Divisional Round without their star corner Tre'Davious White. The Chiefs rolled with Charvarius Ward (undrafted in 2018) and Mike Hughes (first-rounder for the Vikings whose fifth-year option was not picked up) late in the season.
It can be done. Teams can get within arm's reach of the ultimate prize with players who are just good enough at one of the game's premium positions.
Should the Patriots be open to following suit? They could blow Jackson out of the water with a long-term contract in the near future to try to prevent him from hitting free agency, but that seems unlikely. Jackson will want to see offers from other teams, and the Patriots may be unwilling to reset the cornerback market.
That leaves either the franchise tag (which would cost over $17 million for 2022), a tag-and-trade scenario, or the Patriots could simply let Jackson walk and take a compensatory pick for him in 2023.
The Patriots really haven't been without a No. 1 corner since right before they traded for Aqib Talib in 2012. It was Talib, then Darrelle Revis, then Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore and Jackson. They've been willing to pour serious resources into that position. And if they want to keep that trend going, leaning on a legitimate man-to-man eraser in the secondary, then they'll have to funnel those resources to their star free-agent-to-be.
"I love J.C. Jackson," said Hall, who spent 10 years with Washington. "I love J.C. Jackson even more because I thought J.C. was coming to Washington years ago ... We thought he was coming as a preferred free agent. We just didn't offer him enough money. Man, did we make a mistake. The dude has been nothing but a baller ... He's been nothing but a stud.
"In this league, you gotta get the football. Dude is going to get the football. You're asking if the Patriots should sign him, they're going to have to cut the check. And if they don't cut the check, they're going to franchise him and somebody else is going to cut the check. If they want to keep him, they're going to have to pay him."
Therein lies the rub. They've shown in the past that they're willing to devote real money to top-tier talent at that position. Because of the way in which they want to deploy their coverages, they haven't wanted to be without a star there. But the league has shown that a No. 1 corner isn't a necessity to be among the last teams left standing.
How Bill Belichick decides to manage Jackson's situation will serve as an indication as to whether or not his attitude toward that position has shifted.