The NFL season is over, and that means NFL Draft season has begun! NFL teams are like a jigsaw puzzle: dozens of unique, seemingly disparate pieces that must be aligned and joined in perfect harmony to win at the highest level. For the Bengals front office, it’s been a fantastic two-year run, but the time has come to rearrange the puzzle.
Fortunately, the Bengals are in wonderful shape as the 2023 offseason begins. Joe Burrow has been everything Cincinnati could have dreamed of (and more) as a franchise quarterback, Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins are the NFL’s top one-two punch at wide receiver, and most of the elements of a stingy, yet unheralded, defense are set to return - with defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo being the most notable name back in Stripes. It’s almost unheard of, but after two consecutive trips to the AFC Championship Game, it looks like most of the boys are coming back for a third-straight run.
Even though there will be some departures this offseason (as there always are), the Bengals have positioned themselves well to fill those vacancies in-house. Recall last year’s offseason: the Bengals drafted three defensive backs despite returning all the starters from their secondary. Why? Because they knew those players would come in handy this year, when three-fifths of their secondary are up for new contracts. That’s what smart planning looks like, and the Bengals have been doing that as well as anybody in the NFL.
With that in mind, there’s a good chance the Bengals surprise some people in the draft this April. Conventional wisdom suggests the Bengals will look to address three positions: offensive line, defensive line, and cornerback. But there’s been nothing conventional about the way the Bengals have turned around this franchise over the last three years, why should the NFL draft be any different?
Could they use a new offensive lineman? Sure. But there are more rounds after the first round. They drafted starting guard Cordell Volson in the fourth! And yeah, Volson wasn’t spectacular (or even good, really), but he was able to fill a role for a team that was a few bounces from possibly being back in the Super Bowl. I’m not saying a first-round lineman wouldn’t make a big difference, just that a third- or fourth-round lineman might accomplish the same thing. We don’t need Margot Robbie for this role when Amanda Seyfried will do just fine.
So, what are some position groups in the draft that haven’t gotten much consideration? With the Bengals picking at #28, most of the top prospects will be long gone, but there will still be viable choices. I’ve identified four “under-the-radar” spots that could see an injection of first-round talent:
Ask anyone what the strongest position group on the Bengals is, and every last one of them is going to tell you wide receiver - and it’s not hard to see why. Ja’Marr Chase is a spectacular talent, Tee Higgins is a perfect complement, and Tyler Boyd is a reliable target in the middle of the field. If you have those three around, why would you need to add another highly drafted receiver?
Because the trio, as currently constructed, might not be around for much longer.
As much as one might try to drown out the noise, the Higgins trade rumors are going to persist until he gets his contract extension. The Bengals could also part ways with Boyd to facilitate a Higgins deal. Either way, both are free agents after the 2023 season - change is coming one way or another.
And what do we know about this current Bengals organization? That they like to get ahead of these problems. Drafting, say, Quentin Johnson in the first round, would go a long way toward easing those potential concerns. With the 28th pick in the draft, the Bengals will be in a great position to select one of the top pass catchers in this year’s draft. Here are a couple players they could target:
Quentin Johnson (6-4, 210 lbs.), Texas Christian University
Jordan Addison (6-0, 175 lbs.), University of Southern California
Jalin Hyatt (6-0, 180 lbs.), University of Tennessee
Jaxon Smith-Njigba (6-1, 200 lbs.), The Ohio State University
Hayden Hurst was a fun player, but he’s a free agent now and the Bengals have a tough decision to make on whether to bring back the 29-year-old. While Hurst showed a lot as a reliable check-down target for Joe Burrow, he’s not a good blocker and the Bengals struggled to run under center as a result, especially after blocking tight end Drew Sample was lost to a torn ACL in Week 2. Fortunately, the 2023 Draft has some seriously good options to consider at tight end.
If the Bengals are going to return to the Super Bowl, they’re going to need more balance on offense. Bringing in a tight end in the first round who can block and catch passes at a high level might be the perfect addition to this team. Having a player like that on the field can disguise the Bengals intentions, and it might even allow the Bengals to run more two-tight-end formations, a tactic utilized by the New England Patriots dynasty to great effect. If the Bengals choose to go with a tight end at pick #28, here are two names that could be good fits:
Michael Mayer (6-4, 265 lbs.), University of Notre Dame
Dalton Kincaid (6-4, 240 lbs.), University of Utah
Darnell Washington (6-7, 270 lbs.), University of Georgia
Running back has become a devalued position in the NFL. If you subscribe to Mel Kiper’s School of NFL Draft Thought, no team should select a running back in the first round - ever. And you know what, he’s got a point.
Drafting almost any other position - literally any other position - is likely a better investment of your draft resources than selecting a running back. No matter how talented that player is, no matter how sure you are that this player is going to be the next Gale Sayers, running backs just aren't moving the needle much these days. If you need offense, take a lineman, take a receiver, damnit take a tight end for crying-out-loud. Anything but another relic of a bygone age.
But what if - hear me out - what if…there was a Pro-Bowl-caliber player sitting right there at #28…he could be all yours…all you have to do is take him…all you have to do is ignore his player-designation…all you have to do is plug your ears and tell Mel Kiper to go to hell because you’re selecting Bijan Robinson, the star running back out of the University of Texas.
Robinson deserves a special shout out because, in today’s NFL, he’s the only running back probably worth a first-round pick. There are some who think Robinson has the talent to be considered in the top ten - if it were 1983 anyway. Robinson has the strength, speed, balance, receiving chops, and blocking ability to be the NFL’s next great running back, and quickly too. He would solve a lot of issues for the Bengals if he were to fall to #28.
The Bengals already have two solid running backs, but there’s a significant chance that one or both is no longer in Cincinnati by the start of next season. Joe Mixon’s name has been thrown around a lot as a potential cut-candidate, and Semaje Perine is a free agent. Robinson could already be a better player than both of them, and he’d be cheaper too. The Bengals might buy into Mel Kiper’s rule that you never take a running back in the first round, but in the case of Bijan Robinson, he’s the exception that proves the rule.
The Bengals already have two solid starting linebackers in Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson, and even backup linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither has flashed at times. So why would the Bengals even consider drafting a linebacker in the first round? Because, as we’ve discussed, the Bengals like to get ahead of their roster issues. It’s proactive versus reactive.
Pratt has been a fine player in Cincinnati, but he’s a free agent and could price himself out of the Bengals range. Wilson, too, has been an impact player, but he’ll be a free agent in 2024. Ditto for Davis-Gaither. By next year, the Bengals linebacking core could look a lot different.
Among the list of draft priorities for the Bengals, linebacker is, admittedly, low. Adding depth along the defensive line or in the secondary is probably a smarter investment. Still, if an athletic, versatile, coverage-oriented linebacker is sitting there at #28, the Bengals would be smart to give it some consideration. There aren’t many players who fit that description in this year’s NFL draft, but here are two names that could raise some eyebrows at Paycor Stadium:
Trenton Simpson (6-3, 240 lbs), Clemson University
Henry To’oTo’o (6-3, 228 lbs), University of Alabama