The dust has settled on the 2023 NFL Draft, and unsurprisingly, the Bengals draft class is receiving solid marks. If the front office’s recent track record means anything, we should expect a couple of these players to become significant contributors, if not outright stars. But just because the Bengals draft was widely praised and their recent success should give us plenty of reason to trust their process, this weekend didn’t come and go without controversy. Skeptics have plenty of ammunition – and much of it was gathered on the very first day.
Still though, there’s plenty of good in this draft class too. Instead of reaching for a need, the Bengals opted for value. Every selection they made was with an eye for the future, and that’s incredibly important for a team staring down massive contract extensions for stars like Joe Burrow, Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase. Here are the four biggest takeaways from the Bengals 2023 draft class.
Bengals Go Value Over Need in Round One
Heading into the draft, there were wide-ranging opinions on which direction the Bengals might go. Some expected the Bengals to continue to add to the offensive line, which has been such a liability, for obvious reasons. Others expected the Bengals to look at tight ends after watching Hayden Hurst walk for Carolina in free agency. Running back and defensive back were floated as options too.
In the end, the Bengals decided to go with Myles Murphy in Round One, a highly athletic and productive defensive end out of Clemson. The pick itself, in a vacuum, wasn’t shocking – it was a bit of a surprise to see Murphy still on the board at pick #28, and he gives the Bengals pass rush a much-needed jolt – but considering who was still on the board, it threw some Bengals fans into a tizzy.
That’s because Michael Mayer, Notre Dame tight end and Covington Catholic product, was still on the board. If Murphy being on the board at #28 was surprising, Mayer still being there was downright shocking. And yet, even with tight end being a position of need, the Bengals passed. While it was disappointing to see the Bengals pass on a potential starting TE, deeper analysis can help explain the Bengals logic.
First, TE just isn’t a valuable position in the NFL. It’s not a position that commands a ton of money in free agency. In a day and age where draft prospects are paid in accordance with their draft slot, when deciding between two equal players, go with the one that plays the more valuable position. That way, you get the most out of the cost-controlled nature of rookie salaries. That’s the thought process behind drafting a defensive end like Murphy (a very valuable position) and passing on a tight end like Mayer (a much less valuable position).
The Word of the Day? Sustainability
If there was one theme for each of the Bengals draft picks, it was future-proofing the roster, especially on the defensive side of the ball. For as much fanfare as the Bengals offense gets, the defense has been just as important to the team’s success. The Bengals recognize that, and this draft was a nod to keeping the D in tip-top shape.
Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard are two great defensive ends, but they’ll be free agents by 2025 and 2026, respectively. Murphy provides insurance in case one, or both, can’t be retained. Likewise at cornerback, projected starter Chidobe Awuzie, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last year, will be a free agent after the season, and slot corner Mike Hilton will be a free agent after the 2024 season. Second-round pick D.J. Turner and seventh-round pick D.J. Ivey, both add athleticism and experience to the cornerback room, while also giving the Bengals flexibility in the case Awuzie or Hilton isn’t around long-term.
The Bengals didn’t just have an eye for the future on defense though. With Higgins and Chase expected to become two of the highest-paid receivers in the NFL, Tyler Boyd, who is a free agent at the end of the season, may end up being the odd-man out of the receiver group. The Bengals need cheap talent to surround Higgins and Chase, and with the Bengals selecting two receivers in the 2023 draft, they’ve given themselves options in case Boyd is let go. Charlie Jones, a fourth-rounder out of Purdue, brings production, speed, and return skills while sixth-rounder Andrei Iosivas out of Princeton brings prototypical size (6’3’’ 200 lbs) and athleticism to the receiver group.
The Bengals also added safety Jordan Battle in the third round despite adding former Los Angeles Ram safety Nick Scott in free agency before the draft. Scott and second-year safety Dax Hill are expected to be the starters in 2023, but Battle provides cerebral play and leadership qualities to the position as a backup. He could also see the field in three-safety looks, allowing Hill to be the versatile chess piece he showed he could be in college. If either Hill or Scott stumble, Battle could step in as a starter too. Either way, the Bengals have safety covered for the future.
So Much for Tight End Being a Need…
Soooooooo…who else was shocked when the Bengals passed on Mayer in the first round? I was shocked he was even there at #28 in the first place. To me, Mayer made so much sense. The Bengals, apparently, thought otherwise.
And given the Bengals recent track record in the draft, it’s hard not to trust their judgment. Murphy is an excellent prospect who plays a premier position in defensive end. Mayer might be a really good tight end prospect, but defensive end is much, much higher on the positional value chart. It's also important to consider that, no matter who the Bengals selected on offense, they were going to be, like, the fourth or fifth option at best. Not exactly what you're looking for with a first- or second-round skill position player.
But what was even more surprising than the Bengals passing on Mayer in the first round was that, by the time the Rams had made pick #259 the final selection in the NFL Draft, the Bengals had not taken a tight end at all. Not Darnell Washington, not Sam LaPorta, not Like Musgrave, not Josh Whyle. None. Nada.
Instead, the Bengals will head into the season with Irv Smith Jr., Drew Sample and… that’s about it at the tight end position. And while that may seem pretty depleted, remember that last year, the depth chart going into the season looked pretty similar too, just with Hayden Hurst in place of Smith. Hurst, like Smith, was an unknown quantity. We could see Smith take a similar leap this year with Burrow as well.
The Bengals Feel Pretty Good About the State of the O-Line
Aside from tight end, the offensive line was the other position group that most fans expected the Bengals to address – at least in some form or fashion. Instead, just like tight end, the draft came and went without so much as one rookie blocker joining the Bengals ranks. Given the state of the Bengals O-line two years ago, that’s remarkable.
Clearly, the Bengals feel like the O-line is in a good spot. It’s hard to argue. With free-agent signee Orlando Brown Jr. now in line to start at left tackle, that makes four new starters since the Bengals made their trip to the Super Bowl. With Brown in place, along with Cordell Volson, Ted Karras and Alex Cappa, the 2023 Bengals will head into training camp with just one open spot on the line – and that spot is about to see some incredible competition.
After Brown Jr. was brought into the picture, it quickly became clear that the plan for Jonah Williams, last year’s left tackle, would be to move the fifth-year lineman to right tackle, where he will compete with no less than three other players for the starting gig: last year’s starting right tackle La’el Collins, 2023 free-agent signee Cody Ford, and third-year lineman Jackson Carman. The 2021 Bengals would have killed for that kind of depth – and that lack of depth nearly got their QB killed in the process (go figure).
Would it have been nice to see the Bengals add another lineman to the mix? Probably. But the focus of the 2023 draft class was twofold: athleticism and the best player available. In that regard, the Bengals nailed it this year, and they’ve set themselves up for future success. Adding another backup lineman wasn’t going to move the needle for the Bengals, and besides, they’ve spent plenty in free agency filling those holes.
Crucially, the Bengals still have several young linemen still developing that could turn into useful starters down the road. I’ve already mentioned Carman, who showed marked improvement when he was pressed into a starting role against the Buffalo Bills in the Divisional Round, but he’s not the only young player with big game experience. Hakeem Adeniji, D’Ante Smith and Trey Hill have all gotten reps during the playoffs – and they’re backups on this roster. We’ve come a long way from the 70 sacks Joe Burrow endured in 2021.