If all goes well at practice this week and he gets the call to play, it looks like the first NFL quarterback Bengals rookie cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is going to face Thursday in his NFL debut (7 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) is the player drafted at the head of his class.
But the Cots' Andrew Luck isn't the only current first-rounder feeling the heat. Kirkpatrick, taken 16 picks after Luck, has barely practiced for the Bengals since he arrived from Alabama. Try seven times. Four in the OTAs. Twice last week. And Sunday when he participated in the padded practice on Paul Brown Stadium's grass fields.
Hamstring and groin issues saddled Kirkpatrick during the spring and a bone spur around his knee related to a growth issue eliminated his first training camp.
"Of course there’s pressure," Kirkpatrick said before Sunday's practice. "You’ve got a lot of fans that’s looking forward to me going out and hopefully doing great things. Those are the people I don’t want to let down. So its pressure, but I don’t let it affect my field play.
"(The inactivity is) very stressful. A competitor always wants to be out there, and that’s what I feel like I am. The hardest thing about it was just staying in tune and staying mentally into the practice and into the game ... I want to play. I want to give it a shot. I want to see how it feels out there. But it’s basically all up to the man above."
What has affected his play is his lack of play. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer simply hasn't seen Kirkpatrick enough to even evaluate what he wants to see from him Thursday.
"If you play basketball every day, you get better playing basketball," Zimmer said after practice. "If you play corner every day, you get better at playing corner.
"He's got some technique issues. Most of them do. But the other guys have had 35 days of technique."
Kirkpatrick admits that he's far enough behind that he's had trouble keeping up with the Bengals receivers as he gets back into it.
"Right now they’re at their peak. I’m the one that’s grabbing cloth," he said. "I’m trying to get my steps right. I’m trying to get my foot placement right. Those guys right now are a step ahead of me, and I can’t change that. I’m working myself to get in better shape and get to where they’re at."
Those feet are the big question for Kirkpatrick. Technique. There's no doubt he can play bump-and-run and play up at the line of scrimmage. That's what he did for Nick Saban in college. But up here, he has to learn to play off coverage and play in space.
"It wasn’t every play," he said. "It was 80 percent. It’s a lot here, but it’s the option. You’ve got the option to play up or the option to play back ... it was something new. It was a challenge. I feel like I’ll be great at it. I was attacking it in the time I was out there."
The fear in some circles is that Kirkpatrick's rookie year is shot because it is such a tough position to begin with and his transition is so challenging. But Zimmer says, "I'll never say that," and Kirkpatrick says it's just not true.
"It’s a long season. I’m not worried about if I’m starting or am I going to get to play," he said. "I can contribute on special teams. I feel like I do a great job on special teams. It’s not about the feel thing for me; it’s all about how I can help this team win."
Even in the spring there was some buzz that he'd probably be inactive for the first few games as he developed. Now that looks to be virtually set in stone. So there's the quandary. He can't get on the field because he's not ready, but he's not ready because he can't get on the field.
"It wouldn’t really bother me as far as my emotions and my pride," Kirkpatrick said. "But it will bother me as far as, ‘OK, I need to get better’ and what I need to work on."
Kirkpatrick is hoping to play the first half Thursday and he plans to let it all out in practice this week to find out where he is physically. He's not the only one that wants to know. This is what head coach Marvin Lewis wants to see Thursday:
"An opportunity to get out there and compete and get winded and go back to the huddle and hear the next call," Lewis said. "Know the down and distance, the situation, and react and play to what the defense calls.”
The Bengals can afford to sit Kirkpatrick because they've got five other first-round corners in front of him. Two of them have also barely played this preseason with muscle pulls, but Lewis is hoping
"He’s fortunate to have five great mentors there with him," Lewis said. "All of the other five corners are all veteran corners who are always talking to him about things."
Jones, class of 2005, has been trying to tell Kirkpatrick technique is the key. After relying on purely his athleticism the first eight years of his career ("Where has it gotten him?" Zimmer asks), Jones is a recent convert and so his advice for the rookie is pretty straightforward.
"Just play hard. Play with technique. They’re going to catch a ball here and there but don’t let that frustrate you," Jones said. "The difference between here and college is everyone is pretty decent. Everyone is going to come to work. You ain’t going to get no day off. And you’ve got to play with technique.
"Initially the field is a lot wider, the hashes and stuff, so you can get stacked easie. Little things like that I think will help Dre out knowing not to get stacked, knowing how far he is from the tight end, is he plus-2 or minus-2 ... realizing the right combinations and going against different coordinators is a lot different in the NFL than it is in college. College primarily is basically the same thing until you go and play the five wides and everything. But in this league every team is different.
I think Dre will be OK, though."
But no one knows how long it will take. Which is why Kirkpatrick wants to get out there so badly on Thursday.
"It’s very important to see where I stand, to see ‘Am I really ready?’ " he said. "To see how the work ethic I put in is progressing and pretty much just see how my leg stands up."