The Bengals will be intently watching every piece of the NFL combine, which began this week and will continue through early next week. They'll be recording their own scores, seeing players with their own eyes, and trying to piece it all together.
The NFL combine is essentially a standardized tests for college athletes. This allows teams to see prospects on an equivalent playing field. Unlike at Pro Days, In Indianapolis, college coaches can't help their players and the numbers can be trusted. Even the scouts for Pro days can't really be trusted with their scores; I've known a few scouts that mentioned if they really liked a guy they may fudge his numbers slightly so that he makes it inside of certain thresholds, because they want him on the team. If they think he's a good player they may record a 4.63 as 4.59 to make sure he's looked at as a "4.5 guy" not a "4.6 guy."
The combine was originally started because players were asked to travel so much during the draft process and do MRIs and x-rays so often if they had injury history, because every team wanted their own doctors to run the tests. This just wasn't practical and so the combine was born, a universal place where players could be physically tested by doctors and at its inception, run some small events. Now, the combine has grown into a widely watched and very detailed skills challenge.
The 40 yard dash is something that everyone wants to see the times from, but to me, this is one of the least impactful drills at the NFL combine. Mostly because the players will never be in "underwear Olympics" when they are actually playing in the NFL, so even if the guy can run 4.33 in their 40 yard dash in spandex that doesn't mean they can do it in pads. To me, more important drills are the broad jump, the vertical, the three cone drill, change of direction drills, and the pass catching drills for receivers. Each one provides a snapshot of some specific item in a potential draftee that you would look for that can't be seen directly from tape.
For instance the three cone drill provides you a snapshot into what you might be able to see his far as quickness and agility in a player because it requires them to move in a small area stopping and starting multiple times because they are forced to change directions. If you're looking at a position like receiver, linebacker, cornerback, or pass rusher you want him to be able to move quickly in tight spaces and that's what a three cone drill can tell you. Even offensive lineman can be judged from this drill, and it is one of my favorite drills to watch because sometimes the scores and times that players get aren't really indicative of how they looked. You want them to look fluid while running a fast time if they look sloppy or stiff and still run a fast time I could still consider them not as agile as I want. The reason the three cone drill is so important in today's NFL is because it gives a look into athleticism, burst, change of direction, fluidity, and that's what every position requires. The reason why broad jump, and vertical leap are so important, especially for defensive lineman, is it gives you an idea of their explosion. JJ Watt had a crazy vertical for his size, which let you know how strong his legs were in that he would be able to bull rush people and control the point of attack with his strength.
The Bengals will be watching every single player that is at the NFL combine. However, here is a list of players I think the Bengals should keep their eyes on at every position of need. Keep in mind, I may omit players that are highly rated at certain positions, or based on where I project them because I don't think the Bengals will be near them when they're picking at No. 24 in the first round. For instance if a prospect is projected in the top half of the first round, there's no sense in the Bengals really keeping an eye on them, assuming that they probably will be gone by pick 24. The same can be said about a guy who's projected to go in the middle or early round three, unless the Bengals are willing to reach for him, they may not keep as much of an eye on him at the combine.
The defensive line is an area that the Bengals will need to address in the 2016 draft. They are almost to the point at defensive tackle where it is an immediate need, because of Domata Peko's age and declining play. They cannot continue to ask Geno Atkins to get pressure up the middle all by himself. This defensive tackle class so deep I think the Bengals would be wise to double dip and take a player in the early rounds and another in the later rounds to develop as well. A guy who they could get in the fifth or sixth round this year might have been a third or fourth round pick in previous years. People who have covered the draft for many years have said this might be the best defensive line class they've ever seen. To me that says it's a perfect year to take two good players at a position that we have all seen can win you a Super Bowl by consistently providing pressure on a quarterback. Here are some guys that might be there at pick 24.
Vernon Butler - NT, Louisiana Tech
Butler is a massive man and a pure nose tackle who could be a great fit next to Atkins. He had his coming out party this year at the Senior bowl and his stock will likely continue to rise as I expect him to test great at the combine. The question marks with him are that he came from a small school and the level of competition that he has on tape is not what you would want when you're taking a high pick. That is where the risk lies with Vernon Butler
Kevin Dodd - DE, Clemson
He fits the Bengals mold in what they like for defensive ends and he absolutely took over the national championship game this year. He could be a guy that would be a potential replacement for Michael Johnson as he gets up there in age and his production declines. The risk with him is that he really only has one big year of production.
Andrew Billings - NT, Baylor
Billings is a great run stuffer who uses great leverage much like Atkins to overpower offensive lineman. He struggles a bit with sideline to sideline speed so I could see him intentionally sliding in this draft class that is loaded with defensive lineman.
Sheldon Rankins - DT, Louisville
The Bengals haven't gotten much pass rush next to Atkins in the interior defensive line for a while now. As we saw with the Denver Broncos, if you can get pressure up the middle with both of your defensive tackles and pressure around the edge it makes it nearly impossible for the other teams offense to get rid of them. Putting a guy like Rankins who is a dominant three technique next to Geno would spell disaster for other teams, because they would be under constant pressure.
Jarran Reed - DT, Alabama
In my opinion, he is the perfect person for the Bengals to draft in the first round. He has great sideline to sideline speed, an excellent motor, came from a big conference, and can play any position on the defensive line. Next to Atkins they both provide pressure up the middle collapsing the pocket right in the quarterback's lap. He also has the quickness and speed that it shows on tape to chase down fast quarterbacks who are scrambling. In the AFC North this would allow him to chase down guys like big Ben and still take them down not allowing them to scramble and keep plays alive.
Here are some of the players the Bengals could consider taking after the first round
Kenny Clarke - NT, UCLA
Kamalei Correa - Edge, Boise State
Javon Hargrave - DT, South Carolina State
Chris Jones - NT, Mississippi State
Shaun Oakman - DE, Baylor
Carl Nassib - DE, Penn State
Victor Ochi - Edge, Stony Brook
DJ Reader - NT, Clemson
Sheldon Day - DT/DE, Notre Dame
Jihad Ward - DT, Illinois
At the linebacker position the Bengals should be looking for an athletic linebacker to help in coverage in the now pass heavy NFL. If Miles Jack, Jaylon Smith, or Darren Lee are available at pick 24 they should be happy to take any of them. They all fit what the Bengals need and I fully expect Lee to blow up at the combine, because he will destroy all of the drills. Rumors have it, he's going to be closer to 240 pounds at the combine when he played near 220 at Ohio State. I don't think that was a necessary move for him to add weight, but he's definitely doing it so that NFL teams will see him as a three down linebacker. Since most teams play sub packages so much now he could be a three down linebacker at 225 pounds in my. Nonetheless, I expect his stock to soar after this week at the combine. He is a little more wrong than Jack or Smith, but he probably has higher upside because of his wrongness to the linebacker position and the uncertainty of the other two both recovering from knee injuries.
Other linebackers to watch who could be considered by the Bengals in the mid-rounds:
Su'a Cravens - OLB, USC
Dion Jones - OLB, LSU
He is one of my favorites that I thought would be a sleeper mid-round pick for the Bengals, but now his hype is growing and he may actually creep into the top half of round two eliminating him from a possibility for the Bengals. He's a great player and I really like him, but I don't feel like he's ready enough to warrant a first round pick.
Scooby Wright - OLB Arizona
De'Vondre Campbell - LB, Minnesota
His game tape is poor but he's lightening fast and he played well at the Shrine Game, so watch out for his stock to rise to the middle rounds. Many will attribute the poor college tape to bad coaching and want to mold him to their system.
Jordan Jenkins - OLB, Georgia
The Bengals will be forced to put serious focus on the receivers this year. If they knew Marvin Jones would be back, they could use that time to devote to other positions, but they have to assume worst case scenario and scout the top guys too. If Jones and Sanu are gone they will have to consider a receiver in the early rounds.
Corey Coleman - Slot WR, Baylor
They always say it's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. Coleman might only be 5'10" but he's got that mean streak that I've always wanted a Bengals receiver to have. He will take your head off if you don't pay attention. Unfortunately, he is still recovering from hernia surgery and won't be running in Indy. We will have to wait until his Pro Day to see that. Here are some videos of Coleman:
Michael Thomas - WR, Ohio State
In the Buckeyes' system Thomas never really got to show all that he could do. He is the total package at wide receiver with size, speed, and good hands. I think he projects to being very similar to Demaryius Thomas in a few years. He is still a little raw, but polished enough to make some impact in year one. If Jones leaves, he would step right in to fill his shoes and will be a better option in a few years.
Some guys to keep your eyes on who the Bengals may look at in Round 2
Will Fuller - Speed WR, Notre Dame
When you think of a burner you think of Will Fuller he is lightening fast. The combine will be huge for his stock, because if he can catch well in the drills he could creep into the early round two range. Currently drops are a concern for him so he is projected in the second round by most. With all the other options on this offense he would force teams to stay deep or he would blow by them. This would help open the field for the running game and underneath passing.
Josh Doctson - WR, TCU
If it wasn't for the wrist injury that ended his season he would likely have been a first round projection right now. With the system and his slender build, teams now are a little worried how he will hold up and if he can add weight to his frame. If he runs well and is quick in the agility drills he could get back into the late first round range. Next to A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert he would be a really good fit. Plus, I don't think Andy Dalton would mind throwing to a TCU receiver.
Sterling Shepard - Slot WR, Oklahoma
He might be the most polished receiver in the class and could be a steal of this draft. The quarterback situation in Norman didn't really do him any favors, so this will be his time to shine. He could really impress at the combine and improve his stock tremendously. He could be a guy the Bengals target even if Jones is retained to play the slot.
Guys the Bengals might be looking at for mid to late rounds
Tyler Boyd - WR, Pittsburgh: Has some off field concerns, not quite refined, but offers return game help instantly and will likely grow into a solid number two receiver.
Braxton Miller - WR, OSU: We all know the story here: freak athlete but raw at the receiver position. The Bengals would be wise to avoid until the value is there to reduce the risk.
Pharoh Cooper - WR, South Carolina: I'll just say this Mohamed Sanu is his floor in the NFL he offers the same play style with the ability for gadget plays, but he's got more upside as a receiver than Sanu did.
De'Runnya Wilson - WR, Mississippi State: Big Rangy player that could be a great red zone option and if he runs well in Indy his stock will soar because of his size. He's built like Alshon Jeffrey.
Rashard Higgins - WR, Colorado State: He thrived in 2014 with Garrett Grayson as his quarterback, but saw a big down-tick this year with inconsistency at the position in 2015. He offers return help right away, but will need time to contribute as a receiver.
Leonte Carroo - Slot WR, Rutgers: He has some off the field baggage but he was a favorite target at Rutgers and was productive most of his career. He had a really good year last year and returned for his senior year despite possibly being a day two pick last year. He battled injuries and an off field incident this year which limited his production. He could be worth the risk when day three roles around.
Kolby Listenbee - WR, TCU: A flat out burner, Listenbee is a track star that was converted to receiver. He averaged almost 20 yards per catch and runs a 10.03 second 100 yard dash. He's still raw but that speed cannot be coached. The Bengals could take a Mario Alford type of flier on him late.
Duke Williams - WR, Auburn: Here is that classic case of an incredible talent with some major issues off the field. With no baggage he's probably in the early round conversation, but when you punch multiple people in a bar fight and get kicked off the team at Auburn that all changes. Some team will take the risk because of his talent, but I am not sure if Marvin Lewis is ready to start going down that road again.
I believe it's time to look to at least bring in some competition at center for the Bengals. I think the Bengals should consider using a mid or even early pick on a center if the right guy is there. Those guys would be Nick Martin or Ryan Kelly if they are available in round two. If not, here are some guys that they might draft later to bring in as competition.
Graham Glasgow - C, Michigan
He is "too tall" to play center by some teams' metrics, be he played really well at the Shrine game. A repeat quality performance could land him on teams day 3 radar.
Evan Boehm - C, Missouri
He is a guy I had high hopes for to take out Bodine, but he looked pretty awful at the Senior Bowl and now I'm less sure. I talked to some people in the know at Missouri and he battled some injuries this year, so I'm hopeful he can bounce back. He's big, mean, nasty, and loves to finish guys into the ground. He needs to do well in the footwork and mirror drills to get back in the good graces of the teams.
Austin Blythe - C, Iowa
I think Blythe is exactly what you think of when you think of Iowa football. He's a strong, smart player whowill work hard and play tough. He would be a great mid round pick to bring in to compete for the starting job. He has a wrestling background, so usually that means a strong core, something Bodine lacks, and it will help him anchor against the big nose tackles in the AFC North.
For the sake of this article let's assume that the Bengals do what they should and bring back most of the secondary that are free agents. In that case I will just list off some guys that I like in the mid and later rounds for you to watch.
DJ. White - CB, Georiga Tech
William Jackson - CB, Houston
Cyrus Jones - CB, Alabama
Maurice Canady - CB, Virginia
Jonathan Jones - CB, Auburn
Miles Killebrew - SS, Southern Utah: Prototypical thumper
Darian Thompson - S, Boise State: Played great at the Senior Bowl and is a good combo safety.
Jalen Mills - S, LSU
Jayron Kearse - S, Clemson: His tape is so inconsistent I've nicknamed him a skitzo safety because it's like watching two different people.
TJ Green - FS - Clemson
Deon Bush - S, Miami: He can hit like a freight train and has good range, but some of his nationally televised games this year were atrocious. He will need to put up good numbers at the Combine to stay in the late day two to early day three range. His three cone drill will be watched very closely because his change of direction is something that scouts question.
Follow me @codiki for constant updates on NFL Draft prospects and scouting reports. I'll be live tweeting about the combine and posting Vines with explanations throughout.