About the NFL Draft, the true interest lays on the first round picks. The sexy selections of players most analyzed since January, if not since their final collegiate season, with reports dating back to a play date in the second grade. Analysts judge players with shorts phrases, like "quick feet", "strong hands", "tough in traffic" with one word descriptions like explosive, mean, tough, versatile and intangibles being just as critical. Like at an auction, on display, these prospects have so much scrutinized with unsubstantiated reports made public from questionable sources that defamation lawsuits would be filed in any other business. Case in point, Tony Softli, a former Rams and Panthers executive, now a voice on 101 ESPN in St. Louis, wrote in a February post that's now removed from their website (101ESPN.com) that there were, "Heavy rumors of drug use and possible addiction kept [Ryan] Mallett from coming out for the 2010 draft." Mallett didn't respond to the charges in media, electing to discuss it with teams only. However his Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino refuted reports to a recent Elizabeth Merrill report saying that he never tested positive for a banned substance.
Mallett is one of Cincinnati's sexy selections in this year's NFL draft because their former franchise quarterback, Carson Palmer, is demanding a trade and threatening to retire if he isn't granted compliance. And quarterback tends to be a popular position, even though most experts and observers agree that the team could find a functional and serviceable quarterback in the second round. Why not the first round? Think of it this way. Has there been an overwhelming argument that Auburn's Cam Newton or Missouri's Blaine Gabbert are franchise-level quarterbacks? Once Andrew Luck, at one point the overwhelming favorite as the franchise-level quarterback and a can't-miss prospect, decided to return to Stanford, the debate between best quarterback prospects launched with an overwhelming consensus always finding an escape. But there is a franchise-level wide receiver in A.J. Green and franchise level defensive talent that the team could be better off selecting. And in Cincinnati's case, it's not like they've had much success with first round quarterbacks.
There are areas on this team that needs help. A mid-round safety like Utah State's Rajric Coleman, Cal's Chris Conte or even UCLA's Rahim Moore -- often graded as the top safety prospect in this year's NFL Draft -- are players we expect the team to consider, addressing a position depleted in personnel and talent. Could they go for two safeties in the draft? Depends, we suspect, on how the market will react to free agent safeties like Roy Williams and Chinedum Ndukwe. With no free agency, that will have to come from guess work because this free agency class doesn't feature those star players. The top available safeties, backups for some teams, could be overvalued and very much in demand, pricing the Bengals out of possible bidding wars. So do the Bengals draft a second safety later in the draft? We don't suspect that they will, but it wouldn't be that surprising either.
Cincinnati's first two picks will generate the highest interest. While Green is probably the odds on favorite, he's not that heavily favored; the position doesn't have that desperate need associated with it like the secondary and the Bengals have yet to invite Green to Cincinnati (contrary to a recent report). But then, unless the Bengals look to replace Johnathan Joseph (which you know, kind of makes sense), the secondary doesn't have the talent level that justifies the selection. But of course, mighty fine Cincy Jungle writer, Patrick Peterson could be there. Sure. But do the Bengals think that far ahead, beyond the sexy picks at quarterback and wide receiver? "My boss loves offense," said head coach Marvin Lewis at last month's NFL Meetings. That'll be an anxious wait-and-see moment. There's just not enough information out there for fans to really sit comfortably with one selection. Green is a favorite, but what about quarterback? It's widely believed that if Auburn quarterback Cam Newton is there, the Bengals will pull the trigger. If not Newton, then Green? Or defense; a unit that many fans believe would help this team more. But we're more hopeful with that than anything.
Beyond that, the final six selections are where the Bengals could set themselves up to grow and rebuild. They need at least one running back, ideally several. With Nate Livings and Evan Mathis listed as free agents, they need a guard -- preferably a starting guard. But Mr. Studly writer, Livings is a restricted free agent that was tendered by the team already. True. A new collective bargaining agreement could redefine the differences between restricted free agents -- mainly reverting to pre-uncapped year eligibility that says four years of experiences makes a player an unrestricted free agent, not six like the season that recently passed. Livings is a five-year veteran and likely unrestricted free agent. That is, of course, if the players don't win their current court battle with the league to lift the extension, that would likely revert the 2011 season to 2010 rules. At this point, the room is simply spinning with variables.
The Bengals also need an outside linebacker, especially if Dhani Jones leaves for free agency and Rey Maualuga moves to the middle. Yes, Roddrick Muckelroy is a favorite to move to outside linebacker. But what about the player that replaces Muckelroy on special teams; a late-round selection perhaps? And we have yet to point out that Brandon Johnson's departure to free agency could severely limit this team's production in the passing defense during nickel formations. Replacing him could be more vital than replacing Dhani.
There is also wide receiver to worry about; a justified argument for selecting Green fourth overall. Even with Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley, the Bengals have to rebuild the position. Quan Cosby is an exclusive-rights free agent and the position is rounded out with Shay Hodge. On the other hand, that leaves Chad Ochocinco on the roster, which could play out with him remaining on the team if Green isn't selected in the first round. However, by this time next year, the Bengals will have two receivers signed to contracts -- Shipley and Hodge -- with Caldwell, Simpson and Ochocinco (if he sticks around) all becoming free agents. It wouldn't be surprising to see the team draft a wide receiver late, or rebuilding the position with undrafted free agents, whenever that's allowed. Damn the NFL and the players for making everything so complicated.
The NFL Draft will be interesting, to say the least. Without free agency to fill the gaps on the roster, allowing the Bengals to draft prospects with the future in mind, the team has to select players that are able to contribute immediately, filling out the roster with free agents when labor peace finally allows fans to exhale a sigh of relief.