It's no secret that the Bengals are in the market for a running back in this year's draft. Two of the backs that were on the 2012 roster aren't on the current one, with Brian Leonard reuniting with Greg Schiano in Tampa Bay and Bernard Scott not even getting a sniff from the Bengals or any other club this offseason. There are a number of quality backs in this year's draft and a number of those names have been connected to Cincinnati.
The one that they seem to have the most interest in is North Carolina's Giovani Bernard, as they had dinner with him on Tuesday night and showed considerable interest in him at UNC's Pro Day. Bernard brings an intriguing skill set matching a 6.7 yards per carry average his senior season with 47 receptions and two punt return touchdowns. Recently, I was asked if he should be the back that the team takes early on.
I like what Bernard brings--particularly his ability to catch from the backfield. I've been preaching all offseason that it is an element that this Bengals offense sorely needs and Bernard would undoubtedly bring that excitement. He also has decent size at 5'10 and 205 pounds, though he isn't overly big. Because of his college tape and skill set, he is the top back of Cincy Jungle's own Joe Goodberry and Russ Lande over at The National Football Post.
However, I wasn't terribly impressed with Bernard's Combine workout and he seems to be one of those "more quick than fast" guys. I'm not usually one to put a bunch of stock in a Combine or Pro Day workout, but he just left me wanting a bit more for a guy that is rapidly becoming the consensus top back in the class--especially with Eddie Lacy's confusing injury situation and continuous push-backs of his Pro Day workout.
As it currently stands, I really like Jonathan Franklin of UCLA. I was able to watch quite a bit of him out here on the West Coast and saw his maturity in his final season, as he blossomed into a good prospect. He has a similar skill set to Bernard and, according to Matthew Fairburn of the SBNation mothership, is rising up up many teams' boards. I think he could have the impact similar to the one that Doug Martin had last season. One would likely assume that Bernard would cost the Bengals their No.37 pick and Franklin would likely have to be taken by No.53.
While I prefer Franklin over Bernard, I think fans should and would be happy with either of them. They both could turn into an NFL starter, not just a complement to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, though that would most likely be their initial role. I also am of the mindset that the team should look at another back in the mid-rounds. One intriguing possibility is Marcus Lattimore in the fourth round or so, and Todd McShay of ESPN shares my thought on his current range. Initially, I said the Bengals could take a late-round flyer on Lattimore, but that was a few months ago and his health has seemed to have significantly improved of late.
The injury-plagued back from South Carolina recently worked out for scouts and his surgically-repaired knee(s) appeared to look great. If they have Green-Ellis, Cedric Peerman, Dan Herron and either Franklin or Bernard, the Bengals could potentially afford to "redshirt" Lattimore for a season and allow him to fully heal by placing him on Injured Reserve or the Physically Unable to Perform List. If healthy, Lattimore could become a beast and potentially supplant Green-Ellis by 2014 or 2015 as the team's primary back. It's a big "if", but I think that I'd be willing to roll the dice on the potential--particularly if the first four picks really filled the major needs at running back, safety, linebacker and wide receiver.
One other possibility in the mid-rounds would be Kenjon Barner, but that would be a completely different direction than that of Lattimore and he would be a committee-type of back at the next level. I think the Bengals should look at grabbing two backs this year and I would start with the four mentioned here.
More and more mock drafts right now have the Bengals taking either a right tackle or safety in the first round. While that's easy to understand why the pundits have been going in that direction, I still feel that the biggest need on the team is at linebacker. They predictably lost their starting strong side linebacker in Manny Lawson, but brought back last year's starting middle linebacker, Rey Maualuga, on an unpopular two-year deal. Head coach Marvin Lewis made it sound as if there weren't going to be any changes, though we still see Maualuga as a better fit on the strong side. Basically, however you look at it, the team has two natural middle linebackers playing in two of the starting spots.
Vontaze Burfict played well at the weak side last season and it's unclear if he will remain there or be moved to the middle at this point and group of the other linebackers are primarily pass-rushers (DeQuin Evans, Aaron Maybin and Dontay Moch). The only other linebacker that seemingly does well in pass coverage is Emmanuel Lamur and that's a stretch to make that proclamation because of the limited sample size he has shown us. The team needs more athletic players in the group--ones that have sideline-to-sideline range and can cover. With the Bengals' excellent defensive line, they should look at a rangy player to put behind them and let him loose.
Linebacker is a pretty deep class this year, but I'm looking at two high-profile linebackers that the Bengals could plug in as starters and they should immediately help their defense. Let's first start with Kansas State's Arthur Brown. In my second mock draft, I had Brown going to the Bengals at No.21 overall. Brown played the middle at KSU, but given his size (6'1", 230) and range, he could be a better fit on the outside--particularly at the WILL spot. However the Bengals want to configure Burfict and Maualuga for 2013, Brown could play any one of the three linebacker spots and the team loves versatility. Because he was a productive player and has a good reputation, I could see a scenario with Brown being out of reach for the Bengals at No.21.
I think they would then have to look at Georgia's Alec Ogletree if that scenario played out. He has a spotty personal record and I can understand the reluctance of Bengals fans wanting to avoid a Georgia linebacker who has had problems, but he is extremely talented and has a knack for making big plays. He had some good workouts as well, as he recently ran a 4.63 at his Pro Day workout. That's pretty impressive for a guy who is 6'3" and 235 pounds and he too would be a good addition to the linebacker corps.
The more I think on it, the more I think that the team should consider taking one of those two guys if available at No.21. Though the safety spot opposite Reggie Nelson was a real mar on a good defense last season, I just feel that the linebacker corps needs some immediate help. Whether they go safety or linebacker early, the good news is that they likely will be able to find a good player at either position all the way into the third round or so.
I'm not the only one who thinks Ogletree is a fit for the Bengals at No.21 either. In his most recent mock draft ESPN Draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr. mocked Ogletree to the Bengals there.
The addition of Vontaze Burfict last year was a home run in terms of value, but the Bengals were still deficient in their linebacking corps, mainly because Rey Maualuga just wasn't that good, particularly in coverage. Ogletree can provide some coverage relief, but he'll also attack the line of scrimmage and make plays in the backfield. He can get caught over-pursuing, but that's a good problem to have. Marvin Lewis can bring the best out of him.
It's the athleticism and activity at the position that would pay off here. If Keith Rivers was supposedly the "safe and solid pick" back in 2008, Ogletree is the opposite with the risk that comes with him. But, because of the team's recent success and depth on the roster, it could be alright for the Bengals to take a couple of chances this year in the draft. Again, the Bengals can afford to let the reigns loose on a guy like Ogletree and let him be his active self behind the stout and disciplined Bengals defensive front. If a guy like Ogletree pays off, and I suspect he would, it could push Cincinnati's defense to elite.
Get the image in your head that Kiper painted for you in terms of a linebacker corps with Ogletree, Burfict and Maualuga, with some sprinkling in of Lamur and some of the other pass-rushing specialists. It's a fun one one to daydream about.