Free agency has been a difficult period for Cincinnati Bengals fans, having seen their wide receiving corps decimated prior to the 2016 season, they have now been subjected to watching their two premier offensive lineman walk away for big money deals elsewhere. Last season was the first since 2011 that the Bengals failed to make the playoffs and already the dreaded murmurings of a ‘rebuild’ can be heard.
It’s true that in 2017 the Bengals will likely have to rely more heavily on young players that have been drafted specifically to replace those outgoing big names and with this is mind the no.9 pick will be seen as a golden opportunity to snag a perennial pro-bowl player who can be added to a roster that still contains stars such as AJ Green, Tyler Eifert, Carlos Dunlap and Vontaze Burfict. A rebuild is for a team tearing the bricks of their franchise down whereas the Bengals with a good draft may be able to prop up their dodgy foundations and aim to challenge again in the AFC North, it all starts with the ninth pick.
Here are five options that could help to refresh the Bengals roster in the first round of April’s Draft:
Reuben Foster, LB – Alabama
If you take a look at the tape on Cincy’s defense last season it’s quite clear what their main weakness was, defending the pass at the second level. All too often the Bengals would keep an opposition offense at bay on 1st and 2nd down only for them to convert a 3rd and medium play with ease across the middle of the field. The linebacking group lacked athleticism and awareness, Karlos Dansby has departed to rejoin the Cardinals where his thumping style will better suit the 3-4 system. Rey Maulauga is a physical middle backer but too one dimensional. Vontaze Burfict is a better onfield enforcer rather than a playmaker who drops to cover tight ends and running backs.
Foster fills the gap that the Bengals have at LB, superbly athletic, aware in the run game and able to cover the field sideline to sideline with ease. He would pair nicely with Burfict in the Bengals nickel formation, something they use so frequently it is almost their base defense. It would also mean a return to Alabama for Marvin Lewis who has had success with Crimson Tide picks such as Dre Kirkpatrick, Andre Smith and AJ McCarron. Foster’s well documented issues at the scouting combine could have an effect on his draft stock and allow the Bengals the chance to snap up the no.1 linebacker in this year’s draft (read our Scouting Report here).
The Bengals are used to bigger red flags than Foster’s combine fallout so it is unlikely to be a major issue when considering him at 9 but what is more likely to be a sticking point is the value of the position. If a premier pass rusher is available with the ninth pick then the value of that type of impact player is likely to trump a linebacker like Foster. In addition, the sounds out of the team at the back end of last season were that 3rd round pick Nick Vigil was the future at the position. Lewis sees Vigil as a do-it-all linebacker with coverage skills, the amount of time spent in a formation that only has two LBs on the field means that the Bengals may consider the starting backers spots already filled and seek to address depth at the position later in the draft.
Derek Barnett, DE – Tennessee
Part of the problem that led to easy conversions on passing downs against the Bengals was their nearly non-existent outside pass rush. While Geno Atkins provided pressure on the interior, Carlos Dunlap lacked any support from his opposite number Michael Johnson. Johnson’s presumed successor Will Clarke showed flashes with four sacks but rotational piece Margus Hunt exited the team after 0 sacks in 2016.
Adding in Derek Barnett makes a lot of sense for the Bengals, Michael Johnson still offers some value in the run game and Will Clarke’s development is ongoing but by putting Barnett in the rotation it not only allows one of those two to move inside on passing downs but also takes the pressure off the team’s star defensive end Carlos Dunlap. The need for a pass rusher is clear and if you’re not going to get Myles Garrett then Barnett is the next best thing.
Derek Barnett is a technician, strong with his hands and with tons of college production he appears to be a no-brainer, yet he doesn’t fit the mould of a Bengals defensive end, at 6-3 he measures shorter than the mammoth ends Cincinnati love. Although his sack total is high in the SEC, Barnett is not an athletic phenom like some of the rushers that may be available later in this deep class. If the Cincinnati Bengals are serious about giving Will Clarke a shot at building on his four sacks from last season then bring in Barnett would likely prove to counteract any progress Bengals coaches are making. At pick nine you want to make sure you are getting a player who can have an impact on every play, by kicking the tyres on Connor Barwin it seems the Bengals may prefer a situational player rather than an every-down guy at DE for now.
Jonathan Allen, DL – Alabama
The NFL is all about star-power, when you get given an opportunity to take a franchise player it is usually difficult to turn down and in the shape of Jonathan Allen the Bengals may have that type of decision to make come draft day. The AFC North is a hard-nosed division where one week you need to stem the run in tough conditions while the next you need to put pressure on Big Ben or Joe Flacco, with that in mind having a varied and multi-talented defensive line is almost a must in such a competitive setting.
Jonathan Allen is arguably the second best player in this draft. He is a hulk whose ability to penetrate the offensive lines of major SEC programs has turned heads not only this year but even the season previous where Allen made waves despite being in a rotation with the likes of Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson. He has the ability to play across the line, replacing Michael Johnson on 1st and 2nd down while moving inside to relieve our predicted starting nose tackle Andrew Billings on obvious passing downs. One thing not in doubt is that a line containing Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins and Jonathan Allen will cause multiple headaches for opposition offensive lines (read our Scouting Report here).
If Allen makes it to pick nine it means there is a legitimate worry about the state of his shoulders, having had surgery on both shoulders and medical reports reporting that they are already showing early signs of arthritis, it has to be a concern that Allen may only make it through one contract cycle. Outside of the top 10 tends to be where teams become more receptive to the idea of drafting players with red flags and Cincinnati needs to strike gold with a high draft pick, something they haven’t had for a few years. Allen may prove to be a risk too far, especially after the Bengals are already under pressure having taken Cedric Ogbuehi in the first round of 2015 despite his medical issues.
Garrett Bolles, T – Utah
Cincinnati’s success in 2017 may be heavily dependent on how their offensive line adapts to losing two top tier players at tackle and guard. Andrew Whitworth, although aged 35, was still playing at a high level and was well rewarded by the Rams who were willing to give him big money over three years, something the Bengals were never going to do considering they had already drafted his replacement in Cedric Ogbuehi. Despite Ogbuehi’s troubles in 2016, his shift to the left side where his mobility can be put to better use as well as a full pre-season of preparation rather than rehabilitation, should hopefully bring about some improvement. Christian Westerman was a shock faller in last year’s draft and he may be called into action immediately to cover for the loss of Kevin Zeitler. However the Bengals address the line it is certainly going to be an area they are likely to bolster in the draft.
This draft is not strong across the offensive line, arguably you could say that none of the offensive line group are true 1st round talents but as the bowl games and draft process has gone on Utah’s Garrett Bolles seems to be most experts no.1 lineman. With Cincy’s concerns all along the line Bolles would make sense in terms of need, he has shown the ability to play at either guard or tackle and this versatility would allow the Bengals to place him in any spot depending on what weaknesses show up in a relatively untested position group. Bolles’ quick feet and ability to get to the next level is exactly what the Bengals like in offensive linemen, as demonstrated by the number of plays which include a pulling guard. Although Bolles is not a top 10 guy the scarcity of players you could start at the position is likely to drive up his value.
There is no doubt about it, this is a reach. Bolles simply isn’t a top ten pick, with the amount of defensive talent on the board it is difficult to see how the Bengals could shift their focus to their o-line even after the extreme losses they have suffered at the position. Having drafted Ogbuehi, Westerman and Oregon tackle Jake Fisher in recent years as well as re-signing Andre Smith, who can fill in at tackle or guard, it seems the Bengals are likely to avoid an offensive lineman so high, rather choosing to address the need at the top of the second round with the likes of Dan Feeney or Antonio Garcia presumably still on the board.
OJ Howard, TE – Alabama
The Cincinnati Bengals have struggled to restock Andy Dalton’s receiving targets since losing both Marvin Jones and Mo Sanu and while Tyler Eifert and AJ Green are blue chip players arguably in the top-3 of their respective positions there is a genuine concern over the number of games the two actually make it to the field together. Too many times last year Bengals fans knew they were in for a tough day with Dalton firing at Brandon LaFell, CJ Uzomah and James Wright. Although looking at receiving options would seem more plausible at the back end of the draft, if the Bengals can’t find help protecting Dalton they may be well advised to find him a new target.
OJ Howard was underused at Alabama but has emerged as the premier tight end of the 2017 draft throughout the testing process. Safe hands, smooth running style and top end speed means that Howard is a true offensive weapon. Despite having Eifert the Bengals have flirted with the idea of a New England-style two TE formation on numerous occasions and the Belichick approach could prove worthwhile. The Patriots also have an injury prone superstar in Rob Gronkowski and always make sure they have a talented second option with the likes of Aaron Hernandez, Martellus Bennett and now Dwayne Allen having played big parts in the Pats offense. Howard can step in for Eifert if his injury woes continue but even better is the proposition of Howard, Eifert, Green, emerging talent Tyler Boyd and Gio Bernard out of the backfield, it certainly would make Dalton’s life a lot easier. Howard’s ability to split out wide and play in the slot would also mean they would be drafting a slightly different style TE to Eifert (read our Scouting Report here).
Despite concerns over the durability of Tyler Eifert it is more than likely that the Cincinnati Bengals explore re-signing the tight end to a big deal and prevent him from hitting the market next offseason. Dedicating a top-10 pick to a Tight End spot which is already filled with one of the top players at the position certainly seems unlikely given the holes at O-line, running back, defensive end and linebacker.