Photo Credit: Maize & Blue Nation (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TylerLinderbaum.jpg)
It feels like the options for the Bengals with the 31st pick are endless. They could go defense to help replenish a surprising unit with young talent. They could look to add depth and competition to an already vastly-improved offensive line. They could add another weapon for Joe Burrow, giving him a quartet of skilled, diverse and explosive wide receivers. Heck, they could even add a tight end.
But one player, more than any other the Bengals could draft, fills the best combination of need and potential, of short-term reward and long-term gains. That player is Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum.
Now, if you’ve read any of my articles in the past, you might be familiar with the former Hawkeye. The two-time 1st Team All-Big Ten selection, 2021 1st Team All-American, and 2021 Rimington Award winner for best center in the country is universally considered to be the best center prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft. He would be a slam dunk selection for the Bengals at #31, provided some other enterprising team doesn’t snatch him up first.
The conclusion of Super Bowl LVI marked the beginning of NFL Mock Draft season. At the top of almost everyone’s mock were some familiar names: Michigan defensive end Aiden Hutchinson, Oregon defensive end Kavon Thibodeaux, Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal, and Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton. Surprisingly, most mocks did not project a quarterback or wide receiver in the Top 5. Another player, while not appearing in anyone’s Top 5, appeared regularly in the Top 10 - that player was Linderbaum.
Since that time, Linderbaum has seen his draft stock slowly fall, although by no fault of his own. Instead, speculation has increased about his perceived lack of strength and the value of the center position in the modern NFL. If these prognosticators are to be believed, the 6’3”, 296 lbs. Linderbaum may not hear his name called until the end of the first round, or even the beginning of the second. This couldn’t be better news for the Bengals.
Recruited to Iowa as a defensive tackle, Linderbaum switched to the offensive side of the ball in 2019. The former high-school All-American and four-sport athlete made the transition seamless.
“He’s just a real good football player and the tenacity, I think, he shows on the wrestling mat — he showed it in football last year, too — he brought it with him,” said Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, “That’s who he is. He’s really serious and he’s got a lot of pride. I think he’s going to do just fine.”
Wrestling played a large role in the development of Linderbaum as a football player. Coming into high school, Linderbaum was not a massive human. He weighed about 220 lbs., and would routinely wrestle as a heavyweight against opponents who weighed as much as 280lbs. Linderbaum was never deterred. In one of the most impressive achievements of his high school career, Linerbaum pinned future Iowa teammate, current Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive lineman and Tom Brady’s blind-side protector Tristan Wirfs.
Wirfs, who had already committed to Iowa, was an upperclassman and outweighed the young Linderbaum. With the odds stacked against him, Linderbaum pulled out the surprise victory, defeating Wirfs for the first time and earning a spot in the state competition.
“The big thing for me that wrestling has kind of helped out is the mentality side of things. Wrestling, it’s you go out on the mat and it’s one-on-one,” said Linderbaum in an interview with the Big Ten Network, “You gotta defeat the guy across from you. I try to bring that over to football. You got to get after him and that’s kind of the mentality I have.”
Given the nature of offensive line play, mentality plays a huge role in success, perhaps more than any position outside quarterback. Linderbaum has the drive and determination to be an outstanding NFL player, but he isn’t a great prospect due to intangibles only.
No, maybe the most impressive part of Linderbaum’s prospect profile is his tremendous athleticism. There are very few offensive line prospects who can move laterally and with the same explosion as Linderbaum, and most of them play offensive tackle, not center. His athleticism is so great, that NFL.com included Linderbaum on their Next Gen Stats “Can’t Miss Prospects” list, which also included projected top ten picks in Hutchinson, Thibodeaux, Neal, Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and North Carolina State offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu.
(Side-note: Iowa State running back Breece Hall was also included on the “Can’t Miss Prospects” list, but due to the declining value of the running back position in the NFL, he is almost universally considered to be a late-first round to second round prospect.”
Making the “Can’t Miss Prospects” list is actually a bit of a big deal. Over the past two years, both the Offensive Rookies of the Year (Justin Herbert, Ja’Marr Chase) and the Defensive Rookies of the Year (Chase Young, Micah Parsons) were included on the list. Every other player from the past two lists has become a starter in the NFL. That’s pretty good company for Linderbaum.
As a player, Linderbaum excels in the run game, where he can utilize his exceptional athleticism to out-position and out-leverage his opponent on a snap-to-snap basis. He is able to mitigate his lack of overpowering strength this way. His feet never stop moving and he uses his hands well to maintain that leverage. Linderbaum is also a very high IQ player who never stops looking to help out his teammates.
At Iowa, Linderbaum is well-versed in the zone blocking scheme that has become vogue in the NFL over the past decade. The Bengals happen to run a variation of this scheme. For teams that run this kind of offense, sacrificing play strength for athleticism is actually a worthwhile gamble. Linderbaum has the ability to beat just about any opponent to a spot, but also he stays in concert with his fellow linemen, giving help when needed and instinctively finding work when not needed.
Linderbaum also plays with an edge and nastiness that endears him to every fan of offensive line play. He is never afraid to mix it up with a larger player, and won’t hesitate to put someone on the ground. “He’s one of those people that, if we had five of ‘em, we’d have five starting, we’d have two defensive tackles and three interior guys who would all be Tyler,” said Ferentz. Despite being outweighed on a consistent basis by defensive tackles, Linderbaum never quits on a play and fights constantly. Even when Linderbaum loses a rep, he makes it hard on his opponent.
This brings us to Linderbaum’s downside. There aren’t many holes in his game, but one area stands out: strength. While not totally inadequate, Linderbaum cannot hope to match some of the biggest players in the NFL in pure power. Many of the largest defensive players, especially some of those in the AFC North, line up at defensive tackle. Linderbaum will almost certainly struggle early in his career to contain monsters in the middle like the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Cam Heyward.
With that said, Linderbaum doesn’t really seem like a good fit for NFL offenses that rely on their lineman winning one-on-one matchups across the board. While Linderbaum may be limited to a zone blocking scheme at the next level, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, most of the successful players in the NFL are players who found a perfect marriage of skill to a coach or scheme that brings out their best. The NFL, more than most sports, depends so heavily on coaching and scheme. If Linderbaum ends up in Cincinnati, he will be put in the very best position to succeed.
Even without all the glowing reports and his excellent on-field performance, the track record of Iowa offensive linemen speaks for itself. From past NFL greats like former All-Pros Jay Hilgenberg and John Niland, to former Bengals like Eric Steinbach and Riley Reiff, to current NFL stars like Brandon Scherff and Tristan Wirfs, the NFL ranks swell with former Hawkeye linemen. Linderbaum is just the latest standout addition to the pro game.
“He’s just got a great attitude,” said Ferentz, “He loves football, he loves his teammates, and he works at it. He really studies things…He’s just a really good football player. And we have had a few of them come through here and he’s certainly in that category.”
While he might not be a total slam-dunk prospect in the NFL, his positive attributes far outweigh the negatives, especially for a zone blocking team like the Bengals. If NFL Mock draft experts are right and Linderbaum isn’t selected within the first 30 picks, the Bengals have to jump on the opportunity. Although the Bengals addressed the offensive line heavily in free agency, that shouldn’t preclude them from continuing to surround Burrow with the best line possible.
Ted Karras, who the Bengals signed to play center in 2022, is a fine player, but there’s a reason he’s being paid mid-tier money for an offensive lineman. Linderbaum could be an exceptional player at the position. If the Bengals bring Linderbaum into the fold, they could easily allow him to develop his game and strength for a year while allowing Karras to start. They could also allow Karras to play guard, which he has done in the past, and give the starting center job to Linderbaum. They could also put Linderbaum alongside last year’s second round pick Jackson Carman, allowing Karras to be a jack-of-all-trades interior backup and vise-versa. Bengals fans have seen the impact injuries can have on offensive line performance. Linderbaum’s presence gives the Bengals added flexibility and insurance in case one of their linemen misses time.
Linderbaum is one of the very best prospects in the NFL draft. If he is available when the Bengals are on the clock at pick #31, they have to pounce. No other player in this draft gives the Bengals this combination of future potential, immediate need, and scheme fit. Linderbaum could be an annual Pro Bowler as a Bengal. Let’s get this guy in stripes.