Updated: May 7, 2022
Photo Credit: All-Pro Reels (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pregame_WFT_vs_Bengals_08-20-2021.jpg)
It was wild in Las Vegas for the NFL Draft weekend. There were trades galore, star players on the move, and plenty of head-scratching decisions made (i.e., a kicker and two punters being selected in the fourth round). General Managers and scouts alike will have their careers made and destroyed based on the evaluations and decisions they made this weekend.
As it stands, after trading up for defensive backs Cam Taylor-Britt of Nebraska and Tycen Aderson of Toledo, the Bengals made six selections in the draft, targeting NFL-ready players who can fill roles immediately for a title-contending team. The front office clearly saw the secondary as a unit in need of some refreshment, selecting three defensive backs in total. The offensive line was expected to be addressed even though the Bengals added three free-agent starters. Instead, the Bengals opted to select just one O-lineman, and in the fourth-round no less. I'm sure Joe Cool Burrow isn't worried, but I think his mom may have wanted to see the Bengals a tad more aggressive on that front.
It seems the Bengals had a specific strategy in mind going into the 2022 NFL Draft to secure top athletes at premium positions, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Let’s take a look at some of the big takeaways from the Bengals’ draft class…
The first big takeaway from the Bengals’ draft is this class was all about adding flexibility, versatility, speed and athleticism to the team, both in the present and the future. Nowhere is this more obvious than their first selection, Daxton Hill out of Michigan. Hill was a three-year player for the Wolverines who lined up all over the secondary. A jack-of-all-trades who appeared as a slot corner, deep safety, boundary corner and box safety, Hill combines impressive speed and athleticism with excellent instincts and playmaking ability.
When he was selected with the 31st pick, many began speculating that Hill’s arrival was a sign that one, or both, of the Bengals’ current safeties, Jessie Bates III and Von Bell, wouldn’t be returning for the 2023 season. That chorus only grew louder when the Bengals continued the defensive back avalanche by trading up to select Taylor-Britt in the second round. Likewise for Anderson in the fifth. While it’s true that it will be extremely difficult to bring back both of these top tier safeties, the true value of these defenders is their ability to be on the field with Bell and Bates at the same time.
Anderson is, in many ways, a discount-version of Hill - a defensive back who lined up at multiple positions during his time at Toledo, primarily slot cornerback and deep safety. Out of the three DBs the Bengals selected in the draft, Anderson actually recorded the fastest 40-yard-dash time at 4.36 (both Taylor-Britt and Hill recorded personal bests of 4.38). Anderson will fill a backup role for the Bengals at safety but has the potential to be a starter down the road.
In fact, if the Bengals are unable to re-sign Bates or Bell in 2023, and Hill has to step in for one as the starter, guess who can slide into Hill’s vacant third-safety role? Anderson, that’s who. And based on comments made by head coach Zac Taylor and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, three-safety looks are about to become a real staple of this Bengals’ defense. Count me in as someone who loves this line of thinking.
As the NFL continues to progress, passing has only become more and more prominent. In order to stop some of the most potent offenses, like the Kansas City Chiefs or Buffalo Bills, defenses are utilizing more and more defensive backs. There’s a caveat to this, though. Sacrificing size for speed can help when dealing with the terrifying threats at wide receiver in the NFL, it does little to stop a rampaging running back behind a bulldozing offensive line. That’s where players like Hill and Anderson come in.
With their well-rounded skill sets, both of the Bengals’ newest safeties will be able to help defend the pass and the run, all while giving the Bengals something they’ve never had - players who can reliably handle tight ends. Today, most NFL teams have at least one player ostensibly referred to as a tight end but is more accurately just a cluster headache in the form of a 6'5", 260lbs. human-being. It feels like the Bengals have never, in their entire history of their franchise, adequately covered a tight end. Hill and Anderson give the team two more options to fill the tight-end-stopper role.
In the case of Taylor-Britt, all indications are that he will suit up primarily as a boundary corner, the same position as current Bengals’ starters Chidobe Awuzie and Eli Apple. However, like Anderson and Hill, Taylor-Britt also saw some action as a safety while at the University of Nebraska. While the Bengals might not be grooming him to be a hybrid defender, his athleticism and positional flexibility were clearly something the Bengals desired.
Positional flexibility was also a big feature of the Bengals third round pick, Zachary Carter, the defensive lineman out of Florida. I say that Carter is a defensive lineman intentionally, because, you guessed it, he played multiple positions along the d-line! Carter began his career with the Gators as a defensive end before bulking up to take on interior offensive lineman as a defensive tackle. Now, he'll be expected to bulk up even more, as he's on the light side for an interior defensive lineman at 282 lbs. With his track record, Carter could have a second career on his hands as a weight-gain specialist.
For the Bengals, Carter will slot into the role of the departed Larry Ogunjobi as a penetrating defensive tackle on passing downs. What Carter can bring that Larry O couldn’t, however, is the ability to rush the passer from the outside at defensive end. While that won’t be Carter’s primary role in the NFL, the fact that he displayed this ability in college surely didn’t escape the Bengals’ coaches. With the way they like to mix and match defenders based on down, distance and situation, Carter could be the perfect defensive line chess piece that unlocks new concepts and pass rush packages for the defensive coaches.
The second takeaway from the Bengals draft is that the team was clearly happy with the additions that they made in free agency to the offensive line. After adding three new members in Alex Cappa, Ted Karras and La’el Collins, many, including yours truly, didn’t want the Bengals to rest on their laurels. Tyler Linderbaum, the center from Iowa, was the object of our desires, the missing puzzle piece that could open holes for Joe Mixon and keep Joe Burrow upright in the pocket. Sadly, the division-rival Baltimore Ravens scooped up Linderbaum in the first round before the Bengals had an opportunity.
Even without Linderbaum, though, the Bengals offensive line is much improved. Jonah Williams returns to man the blind-side, Karras steps into center, Cappa fills the right guard spot and Collins takes the right tackle spot. That just leaves left guard as a spot that needs some attention.
Unfortunately, this spot got a little murkier after reports about second-year guard Jackson Carman started surfacing before the first round on Thursday night. According to Kayln Kahler of Defector, Carman allegedly raped a 15-year-old girl when he was an 18-year-old freshman at Clemson. Carman was never put on probation or suspended by the University, and it’s unclear how much the Bengals were aware of the allegations, if they were at all.
If there is any truth to these allegations, and I mean any, Carman needs to be gone immediately. The Bengals have no room for someone who would do something as atrocious as the report alleges. Carman had a disappointing rookie season, but still has a ton of potential. In the face of a report like this, however, potential means nothing.
Besides, the Bengals wisely invested in multiple linemen in the previous draft. Holdovers D’Ante Smith and Trey Hill both have the opportunity to seize the open left guard spot. Ditto for the newest addition to the Bengals’ offensive line, Cordell Volson from North Dakota State. The former team captain and 1st Team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference selection has the size (6’6”, 315 lbs.) and skill to take on a backup role early in his career, while also pushing Smith and Hill for the starting left guard spot.
It’s also possible that the Bengals aren't done adding players to the line in free agency. Former Browns’ center J.C. Tretter is still on the market, the Eagles just released guard Nate Herbig, and the Bengals have already added a couple undrafted free agents in center Ben Brown from Ole Miss and offensive tackle Devin Cochran of Georgia Tech. With Carman’s future in Cincinnati foggier than glasses in a walk-in freezer, the Bengals cannot afford to sit idly and allow their best laid offensive line plans to go to waste.
The last big takeaway from the NFL Draft weekend is that the Bengals remain in a fantastic position to dominate the AFC North for the foreseeable future. The Browns, Ravens and Steelers all had solid, if not better drafts, but none did anything that would suggest these teams are ready to be on the Bengal’s level in 2022.
The Steelers, for instance, made one of the bigger moves in the draft by selecting hometown-hero Kenny Pickett in the first round. The 23-year-old quarterback was the first signal-caller selected in the draft and would be the only QB taken within the first two rounds. Pickett was famously dissected during the draft process for having small hands, which looks like an even sillier criticism now that he was the first QB off the board.
Even with Pickett in Pittsburgh, though, I’m not sure how much he can improve the Steelers’ offense. Ben Roethlisberger, who retired after the 2021 season, might have made every Bengals fan want to pull their hair out and put their foot through their TV, but he was still one of the most dangerous and dynamic quarterbacks in the history of the NFL. No player was more frustrating to root against, because you always knew Big Ben was about to break a sure-thing sack, prance and scoot his way around the pocket, big-man scamper out of danger, and rifle the ball 40 yards downfield to a streaking Antonio Brown or Martavis Bryant or Santonio Holmes.
Pickett is not Roethlisberger. The Steelers certainly shouldn’t expect him to be.
Was Roethlisberger diminished last year? Hell yes. Super yes. Oh-please-don't-let-this-guy-unretire yes. But he still had the experience, football intelligence, and guile to make plays happen. The Steelers don’t make the playoffs in 2021 with Mitch Trubisky, the slated starter in 2022. They needed Roethlisberger’s craftiness, no matter how embarrassing his arm strength was at the end.
Really, it doesn't matter who takes snaps for the Steelers at QB. Outside of maybe running back Najee Harris, where is the threatening presence on offense? JuJu Smith-Schuster is in Kansas City. Wide receiver Chase Claypool talks an awful lot for a player who was awfully quiet in 2021. Their offensive line still can't run block. The Steelers might be begging Roethlisberger to come out of retirement by midseason.
The Ravens, meanwhile, had one of the more celebrated draft classes, but all the praise seems to avoid bringing up an uncomfortable topic for Ravens fans: Lamar Jackson is unhappy. The Ravens were lucky to have Kyle Hamilton, the consensus top safety in the draft class, fall into their laps at #14. In order to trade back up to pick #25 and select the center Linderbaum, they needed to do something a little more drastic - they had to trade away Lamar’s favorite receiver, Marquis “Hollywood” Brown, to the Arizona Cardinals.
Let’s get something out of the way: the Ravens are a running football team. They won’t miss Brown’s production too much. That said, the Ravens might have inadvertently alienated their star QB. Jackson and Brown were known to be close friends, and even though Ravens' general manager Eric DeCosta explained that Brown had requested a trade weeks earlier, Jackson made it known he was displeased on Twitter with a cryptic tweet.
The Ravens might not need Brown, but they need Jackson. No quarterback in the NFL is more lethal running the ball than the former MVP and no team has designed their offense so singularly around their QB’s skill set. Now, the Ravens are face-to-face with Jackson’s expiring contract, and they may have pissed off their franchise icon to boot.
In a bizarre way, it's almost like Hollywood Brown is a magic charm because wouldn't you know it, now Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals are all hunky-dory. No cryptic tweets coming out of Phoenix recently. But in Baltimore, normally the hunkiest-and-doryest NFL town around, trouble could be brewing.
Even with the additions of Hamilton and Linderbaum, the Ravens don’t have anywhere near enough firepower to compete with the Bengals. Yes, the Ravens two starting cornerbacks, Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, will return from injury in 2022, but honestly, so what? Can either of them guard Ja’Marr Chase? Of course not. No one can guard Chase. Remember when Ja’Marr lit up Humphrey and the Ravens for eight catches, 201 yards and a touchdown back in week 7? I sure do. Humphrey is probably having PTSD about it right now.
That just leaves the Browns, who continue to Brown it up like they’ve done for the last 20 years. They traded for a quarterback who hasn’t played football in a year and is facing 22 civil lawsuits for sexual assault, instead of sticking with their former #1 pick Baker Mayfield, who is currently residing in limbo, unable to find a new team while under contract and the Browns refusing to release him. The Browns have also watched wide receiver Jarvis Landry walk out the door, and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney remains unsigned as well. This is a team in flux that might have their starting QB suspended for the entire upcoming season. It would serve them right, first of all, but second, it almost completely precludes them competing in the upcoming season.
There is no way on God's green earth that Deshaun Watson starts the 2022 season without a suspension. Personally, I feel that he deserves to sit out at least one game per pending civil suit. That's 22 games and that honestly still doesn't feel like enough. We can see if it's possible for a quarterback to take two years off and have expert analysts scream out, "Still a top five quarterback!!"
In all, the Bengals did a great job in preparing for the future while also adding players that can make an immediate impact in their roles. This is a roster that is loaded with top tier talent at premium positions. From Burrow and Chase on offense to Trey Hendrickson and Bates on defense, the Bengals are young, skilled and hungry. After losing in heartbreaking fashion in the Super Bowl, be sure that this young Bengals squad will come back even hungrier than before. The AFC North, and the rest of the NFL, had better get ready.