While the Bengals have a reputation for nabbing bargain free agents for the right price, their true philosophy emphasizes the importance of drafting and grooming their own players. After going 12-4 for the first time in almost 30 years, the Bengals look like a premiere NFL team just a player or two away from a Super Bowl run. Hitting a home run in the first round of this year's draft just might be what gets the team over the hump.
It's hard to determine the Bengals' biggest need, given the extensive list of free agents that need to be re-signed, but many analysts believe the linebacker is a position the Bengals will need to address early in the draft. With Vontaze Burfict set to serve a three-game suspension, aging players around him, and free agents pending, a young, energetic linebacker who can cover would be a huge addition to Cincinnati's defense.
Last week, NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah mocked Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee to the Bengals, and this week, others followed suit. Jeremiah's co-worker, NFL.com's Lance Zierlin, mocked Lee to Cincinnati, as well.
The Bengals have question marks at the linebacker position due to free-agency concerns, but that could change over the course of the next two months.
SBNation's Dan Kadar agrees, emphasizing the need for an athletic linebacker to compliment Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict. That's why he, too mocked Lee to Cincinnati with the 24th pick:
With the best defensive tackles gone, the attention turns to an athletic linebacker for the Bengals. They have big physical linebackers in Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga, but not the type of linebacker who can fly he field around easily drop in coverage like Lee.
Bleacher Report's Justis Mosqueda seemed to have a similar thought process for the Bengals. He had this to say on mocking Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith to Cincinnati.
Sometimes, the Bengals have to bring in characters like Vontaze Burfict or Adam "Pacman" Jones to compete in the AFC North. Sometimes, they take undersized players like Geno Atkins (6'1", 300 lbs). This draft, there's an opportunity to steal a top-10 talent at the end of the first round because of injury.
[Jaylon Smith] may not be ready to play in the first half of 2016, but a team like Cincinnati, which has the patience to sit on a talent, this is an ideal landing spot.
While the inability to resist bashing Cincinnati's "low-character" players is sadly characteristic among national writers, Mosqueda makes a good point. The Bengals always find a way to turn guys whose draft stock slips into good players.
Geno Atkins was undersized, Vontaze Burfict not only had character concerns but also flamed out in the combine and most recently, P.J. Dawson fell to the end of the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft despite being graded as the top interior linebacker by several experts.
Even Cedric Ogbuehi was a consensus top-10 draft pick until he shredded his ACL before last year's draft. The Bengals don't only take chances on players with character concerns, they take chances on players whose draft stock slips, regardless of what issue causes the slip.
Draft analysts also have been mocking defensive tackles to the Bengals, as Brandon Thompson, Pat Sims and Wallace Gilberry could all leave in free agency. And while Domata Peko had an age-defying year in 2015, it's hard to see him following that up with another impressive campaign.
That's why Dane Brugler of CBS Sports has the Bengals taking UCLA defensive tackle Kenny Clark with the 24th pick.
The Bengals have been forward-thinkers lately with their first-round draft picks and adding a young nose tackle to take over for Domata Peko makes sense. Clark is a former all-state wrestler and a lot of those maneuvers carry over from the mat.
Which of the above-mentioned prospects interest you the most for the Bengals?