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Bengals need to nail 2017 NFL Draft to recover quickly from 2016 letdown

The Bengals have had a rough go of it this year, and while they have talent on the roster, Cincinnati needs to have a great draft class next spring.

NCAA Football: Washington at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Usually at this time of year, we at Cincy Jungle are writing about postseason possibilities, playoff seedings and if the Bengals will be able to finally get off of the playoff schneid. Unfortunately, the 2016 season was unkind to the team and the powers-that-be are already looking to next season.

Mock drafts, both by the national media and CJ staffers will likely be forthcoming and should make for a much more interesting discussion this offseason. Cincinnati very well may be picking in the top-10 this year, pending the result of Sunday’s contest against the Ravens, so some very talented players who should have immediate impacts will be available.

Rumors are starting to circulate about Marvin Lewis’ future, but whether or not he stays in 2017, it’s likely that the team will primarily focus on the draft. And while the Bengals already have a lot of roster talent, they will need to have one of their strongest classes in quite some time if they want to make a playoff run next year.

There are many reasons as to why this is the case, but the hope is that the Bengals build on a reputation as one of the stronger performers in the draft.

Poor returns from recent seemingly-productive draft classes:

Since 2010, the Bengals have received high marks for the picks they have made in April’s festivities. With every passing season and consecutive playoff berth Cincinnati achieved from 2011-2015, it’s difficult to not point at the best player available strategy as one of the reasons for their success.

But, has the draft-and-develop approach truly benefitted them?

When you look at the series of recent classes, sprinkled-in solid picks have been outweighed by busts and youngsters struggling to get significant playing time. As you look through the first four rounds from 2010-2013, there have been quite a few hits, but those have begun to lessen over the past three classes.

Questions have been asked about Jeremy Hill’s future after such a huge 2014 rookie campaign, followed by significant disappointment, while top picks from the past few classes have yet to have any kind of impact with the club. The 2016 group gets a bit of a pass because it’s still early, but names like Darqueze Dennard, Will Clarke, Russell Bodine, Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Fisher and P.J. Dawson litter the top rounds of the past three draft classes. Which of those players are you currently impressed by?

Getting back a form of extra picks from 2016?

Speaking of the 2016 classes, arguably the two most promising picks were William Jackson III and Andrew Billings. While Jackson wasn’t going to get a high-profile role in 2016, Billings, along with second round receiver Tyler Boyd, were set to play quite a bit of snaps with their respective units, but both Billings and Jackson had season-ending injuries during the summer.

One of the things that is playing into the Bengals’ corner is getting back these two players in their second seasons. It’s kind of like getting extra picks in 2017. Of course, given the Bengals’ ridiculously poor luck with injuries, things could change, but with their need for additional depth amid another season of possible changes, such as unclear futures with Domata Peko and Dre Kirkpatrick, Billings and Jackson could be huge additions next year.

Non-existent free agency approach may continue:

Depending on what transpires in the coaching ranks this offseason, Cincinnati might have a bit of a different approach in netting outside free agents, but with the lone constant remaining (the Brown family still in control of the team), the Bengals could be sluggish once again this March. Opinions on the approach vary, but it’s inevitable that successful teams use both free agency and the draft together to build a well-rounded squad.

Whether it’s because of old stigmas of the club being frugal, or their caution after being burned by previous high-priced spring contracts, the Bengals may prefer to go with the rookie route. If that’s the case, they need to make sure they hit on more of their picks than they have in recent years.

What if Lewis remains the coach next year?

It’s highly probable that Lewis still sticks around for the final year of his contract. Mike Brown’s trust in Lewis has created a solid working relationship, with their philosophies aligning toward the team’s heavy reliance on the draft. While it has led to seven playoff berths in 14 Lewis-led seasons, it has also netted zero playoff wins in the span.

Additionally, Brown and Lewis have relied on the NFL’s compensatory pick formula as another reason for their success. They didn’t have any last year, but following a 2016 offseason filled with player attrition, they should have at least three in 2017, offering more draft ammunition. With the league allowing the trading of compensatory picks for the first time in 2017, Cincinnati has additional opportunity and maneuverability this spring.

So, if the Bengals scrape the bottom of the barrel in free agency once again this spring with solid veterans, the need for hitting on the majority of picks becomes paramount. And, if they get players they can trust, they also can’t be afraid of allowing them compete for significant and/or starting roles next year. Rookies really can have an immediate positve impact (see the 2016 Cowboys).