The crux of excitement in the offseason for a Cincinnati Bengals fan usually resides in the NFL Draft. It has been the bread and butter in the building of the franchise in recent years, and most of the better players on the current Bengals' roster are ones they have drafted and developed.
It's that spirit that has permeated through the minds of our readers, as a number of questions coming our way are draft-related. Given the team's hesitancy to make major forays in outside free agency, it's likely the draft will be where the bulk of the excitement happens this spring for the Bengals.
The first question we received has a bit of a local flair to it, as the reader asks us about the possibility of the Bengals taking a chance on Ohio State players.
@CincyJungle what's the odds the bengals draft a buckeye? Historically they perform in the NFL. Could you see them drafting Braxton Miller?— Chris Donohue (@ChrisDonohue1) February 9, 2016
Well, in regards to the first question, the chances are both good and bad. In NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock's recent positional rankings, eight Buckeyes are in the top five in their varying position groups. Defensive end Joey Bosa is a pipe dream, as many believe he's a top-five pick, but wide receivers Michael Thomas and Braxton Miller, safety Vonn Bell, cornerback Eli Apple and linebacker Darron Lee are all possibilities (at this point) in the first round with pick No. 24, and into day two of the draft as well.
Obviously, the combine and the team's Pro Day will have a big impact on the stock of these players, but all could fill immediate needs. Vontaze Burfict's three-game suspension at the beginning of the 2016 season has been upheld and the Bengals have two linebackers set to hit free agency, so a player like Lee in the second or third round might be a good grab.
With Vincent Rey and Emmanuel Lamur's murky future with the team next year, the Bengals are also looking at losing a number of quality players in the secondary, ranging from both starting safeties (George Iloka and Reggie Nelson), to Adam Jones and Leon Hall at corner. Apple and/or Bell could be decent replacements for these impending free agents, especially with Marvin Lewis liking corners early in the draft.
There is also the question at wide receiver, thus prompting the Braxton Miller question. Marvin Jones might be the team's highest offseason priority, but his price tag might be pretty high for a position they already have a future Hall of Fame player at in A.J. Green. Jones recently debunked the notion he was seeking $7 million per year, but he's also noted that he isn't going to give the Bengals a hometown discount. Mohamed Sanu might be leaving with him, and though Miller has a bit more speed than Sanu, he does have the versatility to throw the occasional pass as Sanu has done for the Bengals over the years.
I like Miller's potential and some have mocked him to the Bengals in the first round, but I think it's too high for a project player. While he has coveted athleticism, he has only one season under his belt as a receiver and it was a year that showcased just 601 combined rushing/receiving yards and four total touchdowns. I suppose the Bengals are in the enviable position to be able to take chances a little earlier than most other teams on high-ceiling guys like Miller because of their deep roster, but they also shouldn't reach.
You're right about the many success stories of Buckeyes players, but, as with any other college football powerhouse, there are a number of failures as well. For every Bradley Roby and Cameron Heyward, there is a Vernon Gholston. Aside from proper scheme-fit and ensuring they are selecting a driven rookie, the Bengals will need to know if the collective talent of the 2016 Buckeyes class all stand alone as NFL contributors, or if they were merely all parts to a superb whole who won't be as effective on their own.
@CincyJungle what position do we take with 24? And who will that likely be?— B A L E (@DWhittaker11) February 9, 2016
Aside from some of the OSU names above, the possibilities are plentiful. If Super Bowl 50 taught us anything, it's that defense still wins championships. No matter who you have under center, be it Cam "Superman" Newton or Mr. All-World Tom Brady, they become ineffective with incessant pressure. Both the Panthers and Broncos have built defenses that are nasty at all levels, but it all starts with getting to the passer. One thing to consider for the Bengals is that they also went offense with their first three picks last year (Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Fisher and Tyler Kroft), so going defense early also makes sense from that standpoint too.
In that vein, especially with some potential impending free agency departures, defensive tackle, an edge rusher and linebacker should all be considered. Domata Peko is coming off arguably his finest year as a pro, but is entering the last year of his deal and is in his early-30s, while Pat Sims is set to be a free agent. The versatile Wallace Gilberry is also set to be a free agent and has just three sacks in the last two years combined. If the Bengals were to get another dominant tackle opposite Geno Atkins who can penetrate offensive lines regularly, or a multi-dimensional pass-rusher to complement Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, I think they would have to strike.
We've run you through a lot of different recent mock drafts, with one writer tabbing Baylor defensive tackle Andrew Billings to the Bengals. Other options in the middle could include Ole Miss's Robert Nkemdiche, and Alabama's Jarran Reed (fellow Crimson Tide defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson is slated to go early in the first).
However, the nastiness of Burfict will be gone early in the season and nobody knows if P.J. Dawson will be a three-down linebacker in the NFL yet. The Pittsburgh Steelers, although employing a 3-4 defense, have loaded up on athletic linebackers and it's helped maintain their defensive prowess after so many retirements and other departures. The Bengals need solid contributors at the position, so they might look to grab one at No. 24. Unfortunately, Alabama's Reggie Ragland is an inside linebacker, which they already have in Rey Maualuga, while a guy like Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith won't be an immediate impact guy because of his recovering from a knee injury.
After waving the defensive flag for the Bengals' first round pick though, they might be best served going with an offensive weapon if they lose Jones and/or Sanu. Some like Miller more than I do for the Bengals, especially because of his added ability to return kicks, but Corey Coleman of Baylor and Miller's OSU counterpart Thomas might be more polished offensive products. Keeping Jones on the other side of Green is the optimum situation, but if they lose him, they might go cheaper and younger to continue to give Andy Dalton as many weapons possible.
One scenario that must be accounted for is the Bengals moving back a few spots if "their guys" are gone. They have done so before and picked up additional picks to bolster the team. Personally, I wouldn't be opposed to them doing so, especially if they lose significant internal players in free agency, but I'd prefer they move up to get a true impact player. The Bengals are a deep team and don't need to fill a bunch of spots as was the issue back in 2012 when they maneuvered around the draft. Move up and get good rookies who can contribute now.
This is my long-winded way of saying that I'm not really sure of the direction they plan to take and we need to see things play out over the next couple of months. Guys they may be interested in could produce poor workouts and those who are slated for the second and third rounds today might catapult themselves into first round conversations after becoming workout warriors. I'm positive we'll re-address this question after free agency and as the draft draws near, as that's when the picture will become a little crisper. These are some names to keep in the memory banks for now, though.