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Dissecting the Bengals Strategy in the First Round



The Reds may be having an erratic start to their season, but it’s been more than enough to distract us from the fact that the Bengals last played a football game three months (and some change) ago.  An intriguing free-agency period, in which the Bengals signed potentially three new starters, gave us a nice taste of what’s to come in 2024, but the NFL’s true first-course – the appetizer of the NFL season – is happening in less than ten days: the draft.  Per usual, predicting the Bengals’ strategy is about as straightforward as Great Britain's coastline.


There are a few reasons why it feels impossible to project who the Bengals will take with the 18th pick:


1. The Bengals have traditionally leaned toward selecting the proverbial “best player available,” instead of targeting positions of need.  The Bengals could certainly opt to use their first-round pick to reinforce the offensive line, but that was also true the previous two seasons and the Bengals opted to select a safety and defensive end with their first pick in 2022 and 2023, respectively.


2. Tee Higgins’ status is still somewhat up in the air (though Higgins recently said he “anticipates” playing in Cincinnati in 2024).  This isn’t exactly groundbreaking: the Bengals are as likely to give into a player’s trade demand as a salmon is likely to negotiate its safe passage past a grizzly bear.  The reality is the odds of Higgins ever leaving Cincinnati were infinitesimal – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t add to their air of mystery as the draft nears.


3. Outside of quarterback, there are multiple positions where the Bengals could use a little more depth.  Some positions are far more likely than others (there isn’t a running back or linebacker worthy of a first-round pick) but the point stands: you can reasonably justify just about any selection this year – offense or defense, developmental pick or instant starter.


Adding to the mystery is the context of this draft class and the unique draft order.  The Bears have the top pick again from the Panthers, and after trading Justin Fields to the Steelers in March, they will be selecting former USC quarterback Caleb Williams.  The Commanders are up next, and they’ll almost certainly select a QB as well.  The New England Patriots may select a QB too…or they might trade down with any number of teams (the Vikings, Raiders and Broncos have the 11th, 12th, and 13th picks respectively).  The team with the 4th pick – the Arizona Cardinals – are in the same boat as the Patriots …but don’t be shocked if they move Kyler Murray to a QB-needy franchise and take one of the four-top rated passers in the draft class instead.


What this means is this: with potentially four QBs being taken with the first four picks (and maybe even six in the first round), the likelihood that some sought-after non-QB prospects will be artificially “falling” in the draft.  It’s impossible to say that star UW receiver Rome Odunze (widely considered to be a top ten pick) won’t be available at 18, just as it’s impossible to say the Bengals wouldn’t be interested in his services if he somehow did last that long.  If a Rome Odunze falls in the draft, and no one else decides to stop it, are the Bengals crazy not to scoop him up?


Another major factor in the uncertainty of the 2024 draft is the rare depth at premium NFL positions, at least from a draft perspective.  The Odunze example illustrates (however unlikely) that a top-ten player could easily fall to the Bengals if other teams scramble for a new passer, but it also underlines the exceptional talent available at the receiver position in this year’s draft class.  It doesn't stop at receiver either: QBs are plentiful, as well as offensive tackles and cornerbacks.  Considering how important these positions have become in the NFL – and how difficult elite players can be to acquire – it’s almost never a bad idea to swing for one of these four positions.


So, basically the story of the Bengals 2024 draft is they might do anything.  Way to keep it simple, Bengals.  But even though figuring out exactly who the Bengals will take feels like finding a way to hitchhike to the moon, we can at least narrow it down.  Here’s a brief breakdown of some of the players the Bengals could be in the mix for at Pick 18:


Can We Fix the O-Line, Please?


OT Olumuyiwa Fashanu (Penn State)

OT Troy Fautanu (UW)

OT Taliese Fuaga (Oregon State)

OT J.C. Latham (Alabama)

OT Amarius Mims (Georgia)


Notre Dame’s Joe Alt is the consensus top tackle prospect so he’ll likely be off the board by the time the Bengals are on the clock, but one of the other above names will be there.  You can count on that.


Each has their merits and demerits.  Mims looks like a young Jonathan Odgen but has exactly eight starts to his name.  Fashanu has the look of a top pass protector but struggles in the run game.  Fautanu and Fuaga may be forced to move inside at the next level, but both could turn into perennial Pro Bowlers at guard.  Latham (360 lbs) would fit right at home next to Bengals tackles Orlando Brown Jr. (345 lbs) and Trent Brown (370 lbs), but he isn’t the greatest athlete.


Joe Burrow has already proven what he can do when healthy, but entering year five in the NFL he’s had as many season-ending injuries as he’s had AFC Championship Game appearances.  Why do we insist on a coin flip (one that doesn’t guarantee the Bengals make it past the Chiefs either, mind you)?  Just take the best lineman available and move on, Bengals.  This shouldn’t be hard…


My Pick: Amarius Mims


But the Bengals Do Love Their Corners


CB Terrion Arnold (Alabama)

QB Quinyon Mitchell (Toledo)


Don’t they?  They’ve taken three in the last four years.  But none was a first-round pick – and unless you count potential position-switcher and Bengals’ 2022 first-round pick Dax Hill – the Bengals actually haven’t drafted a corner in the first round since William Jackson III in 2016.  That said, the top-end talent at the position may force the Bengals hand.


Arnold and Mitchell both bring prototypical number one traits to the table.  They’re both elite athletes, with Arnold being slightly better in man coverage while Mitchell excels in zone.  Whichever you prefer is personal preference, but can either really be justified over a long-term solution along the offensive line?  That said, adding Arnold or Mitchell to a cornerback room already featuring Cam Taylor-Britt, Mike Hilton and D.J. Turner sounds pretty darn nice…


My Pick: Terrion Arnold


D-Line Reinforcements


EDGE Laiatu Latu (UCLA)

IDL Byron Murphy (Texas)

IDL Jer’Zhan Newton (Illinois)

EDGE Chop Robinson (Penn State)

IDL T’Vondre Sweat (Texas)

EDGE Dallas Turner (Alabama)

EDGE Jared Verse (Florida State)


The Bengals really need a more consistent pass rush.  And they need to stop the run.  Taking a defensive lineman potentially addresses both.


Murphy wins with relentless ferocity from the inside while Newton wins with power and athleticism.  You may have mistaken the eclipse last week for Sweat (6’4’’, 366 lbs) going for a jog the other day. The Bengals did bring in Sheldon Rankins to start alongside B.J. Hill, giving any potential pick at tackle extra time to acclimate to the NFL, but the Bengals need the depth regardless.


If the Bengals look to the edge for reinforcements, there are a number of players who could make sense at 18.  Latu has an outstanding feel for the game, Turner fits the prototype mold, Robinson is a diabolical athlete, and Verse is relentless and skilled.  Adding any of these players to the mix with Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard and 2023 first-round pick Myles Murphy could be the ticket to one of the league’s best pass rushes.


My Pick: Chop Robinson


What About Those Receivers?


WR Malik Nabers (LSU)

WR Rome Odunze (UW)

WR Brian Thomas (LSU)


Now we’re getting greedy.  The Bengals already have an elite receiving corps, and more than that, it’s a good bet that two of these names (Nabers and Odunze) will be off the board before pick 18.  But crazier things have happened and if the Bengals are inclined to go against their nature and deal Higgins during the draft, it could open up an opportunity to take one of the three elite prospects.


While we’re fantasizing, let’s talk Nabers and Odunze.  Again, not likely to be around at 18.  But if the Bengals move Higgins…the picture becomes clearer.


Nabers is a lot like Chase.  They both played at LSU, they both put up monster numbers early in their collegiate careers, and they’re both ridiculous athletes.  There’s a lot to like, obviously, and the same goes for Odunze.  Though he isn’t quite the athlete Nabers is, Odunze made his name out on the perimeter as a deep-threat unlike the more slot-inclined Nabers.  Both, however, are big-time prospects, and both could replace Higgins with ease.


Thomas played alongside Nabers at LSU, and though he isn’t as highly-regarded, that shouldn’t be taken as a slight.  Thomas is a fantastic prospect in his own right, and if he can harness his unfair combination of size (6’3’’, 209 lbs) and speed (4.33 in the 40), he has the ability to become the best receiver in this class.  He could very well be sitting there at 18.  Is he worth it?  Possibly, but as long as Higgins is around, it’s probably not the best use of resources to splurge at receiver.  But it’s still fun to dream…


My Pick: Brian Thomas


The Wild Card


TE Brock Bowers (Georgia)


If you think taking a receiver in the first round is greedy, can you imagine if the Bengals took a tight end?  It’s a ludicrous idea…right?  Maybe it isn’t.


Bowers isn’t your run-of-the-mill tight end prospect.  He’s a wonderful athlete, with plenty of speed to score long touchdowns, the strength to break tackles, the elusiveness to make defenders miss in the open field, the acceleration to be a viable threat with handoffs and jet sweeps, and the hands to be a reliable target.  He’s the total package, but recent history of first-round TEs says hold your horses.


Kyle Pitts (6th pick in 2021) has been an afterthought in Atlanta after being taken, and T.J. Hockenson (8th pick in 2019) has made two Pro Bowls, but hasn’t been the game wrecker you expect a top-ten pick to be.  The opportunity cost of taking a tight end early is also high.  If you take an offensive lineman or a cornerback and they turn into an average starter, that’s quite valuable.  The value of a league-average tight end is almost imperceptible.


But Bowers isn’t average at anything.  He’s the exception.  It isn’t really fair to call him just a tight end either.  Is Travis Kelce just a tight end?  Or, for that matter, was Rob Gronkowski?  What tight end have you ever heard of who takes handoffs?


Who knows if Bowers will be available, but if he is, the Bengals have to think long and hard about taking him.  He might be the most unique player in this draft class.  Taking a tight end early in the first round is taboo these days, but there’s a sweet spot here for the Bengals in terms of need and value.  Higgins won’t be around forever, and Bowers would provide a greater presence in the middle of the field than the departed-Tyler Boyd ever did.  The Bengals need an injection of special into their offense, and Bowers provides that.

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Take a good look at those names because odds are high that the Bengals take one of the eighteen names above.  As I said before, you can make a compelling case for just about any player at any position.  But let’s face it: the Bengals should take an offensive lineman.


This shouldn’t be complicated.  The Bengals need Burrow healthy.  Drafting a lineman in the first round not only gives them depth should injuries take their toll, but it would also give them a potential building block at a spot that’s been notoriously difficult for the Bengals to improve.  Right now, it’s a coinflip if Burrow can make it until the end of the season.  Take a lineman, and suddenly it’s not so 50/50, and the reality of another Super Bowl run comes back into focus.

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