The NFL Scouting Combine tends to reel in the interest of those who follow both college and professional football. The ardent rah-rahs that came from fans of college football the previous season get to see some of their favorite players make the leap to the pro game, while fans of an NFL franchise embrace the "it's a new year" mantra.
In what has become an ironic double-edged sword for Bengals fans specifically, the Combine and NFL Draft are one of the most exciting times of the season. Optimistically speaking, the belief of improving a team consistently churning out double-digit win seasons fuels a need for an ever-elusive playoff win. But, the constant stance of the team picking in the early 20's brings a painful reminder of the disappointment from the previous season.
This should be one of the more interesting offseasons in recent memory for the Bengals, though. They're facing 14 unrestricted free agents, six of whom are starters, with a glut of others being sound role players. Aside from retaining some of these key pieces, Cincinnati needs to find a way to better themselves in an effort to get further in the postseason. The Bengals might do a little bit of their improvement through free agency, but the draft is where they will make most of their big moves.
It's in that event where the reader questions were focused this week.
@CincyJungle If Jaylon Smith starts to fall because of the knee injury should the Bengals look to move up to draft him?— John Plymire (@plymirelaw) February 23, 2016
It's a good year to need a young and talented linebacker and the Bengals are in that position. Vincent Rey and Emmanuel Lamur are impending free agents, while Vontaze Burfict is set to miss the first three games of the year, based on Roger Goodell's suspension whim of the week. P.J. Dawson didn't get enough time to live up to some of his rookie hype, Marquis Flowers is coming back from injury and A.J. Hawk just isn't the player he was a few years ago. But, we know solid play with big hits will come from Rey Maualuga.
Athleticism, tenacity, swagger and heady play all need to be added to the group. Rumor has it the Bengals will make a big push to re-sign Rey, quelling some of the issues at the position group. While Rey's high football intelligence, good character standing and willingness to do whatever the coaches ask of him make the veteran a valuable guy to have, the group just needs more sizzle and depth.
A month ago, I talked a little about Smith and USC's Su'a Cravens in another mailbag. To recap, I love Smith's skill set and think he would be a tremendous add to the team, long-term. There are a few things that worry me with the Bengals selecting him though. First and foremost is the knee injury likely keeping him out for part, if not all of 2016. UCLA's Myles Jack is in the same boat.
On one hand, the Bengals are a talented enough team to be able to redshirt injured rookies; letting them heal and develop as they did with Cedric Ogbuehi last year. On the other hand, the aforementioned decimation at the position group makes the need of an immediate impact player more obvious. Throw in Marvin Lewis' odd inability to develop linebackers consistently in Cincinnati after being so good at it in Baltimore, as well as the team's frequent reluctance to play certain rookies early on, and I have my worries. Then again, maybe it's just because Marv hasn't found enough of the right guys.
As for moving up for Jaylon Smith, I'm torn. How far up are we talking and what's the price? Keep in mind this is a team that has only moved up a handful of times in their existence, with the most recent being for a center who most fans aren't pleased with (foreshadowing there). You're moving up for a guy who can't help you right away and potentially giving away decent picks in a year where they might lose a lot of free agents. What if they can move back a couple of spots, pick up some picks and grab Cravens or Darron Lee, and then fill some of the voids from free agent departures?
But, if the team recognizes a game-changer, especially on defense while competing in the tough AFC North, go get him. This team's lack of aggression in free agency and in moving up in the draft has hurt them when the calendar hits January. Guys they likely wanted get taken a few spots before the get on the clock (Tyler Lockett) and they also tend to pick over the free agency scraps--mostly of already-released players so not to disrupt the compensation pick formula. In short, they often settle.
I've said it over the past couple of seasons and have another post coming out about it in the near future: be aggressive and take chances. Being conservative has netted them zero playoff wins, so if they feel like jumping up to get someone they feel can immediately help them get over the playoff hump, I say go for it, even if it is the recovering Jaylon Smith.
@CincyJungle what are the chances the bengals draft will fuller— Sean Sweeney (@seansweeney10) February 23, 2016
This year's receiver class tends to have a bunch of solid prospects, but no one truly stands out as the next absolute superstar. In fact, in the prospects almost-unanimously ranked by pundits in the first three or four rounds, only three receivers stand 6'3" or taller (Ohio State's Michael Thomas, Mississippi State's De'Runnya Wilson and Tulsa's Keyarris Garrett). Two things are certain: the Combine will be huge for this position group and the run on some of the top receivers begins in the late-teens of the first round.
There are many things to like about Will Fuller, namely his speed and big-play capability. Last year at Notre Dame, Fuller had 1,258 receiving yards, 14 touchdown receptions and a whopping 20.3 yards per reception average. It's not just his speed that impresses me, but his ability to not break stride on a deep ball, thus creating late separation for the big play. Here are a couple of examples.
Notre Dame WR Will Fuller having himself a day, with his 2nd TD catch of the 1st half https://t.co/5cTra5G0m5— Draft Scout 24/7 (@DraftScout247) November 7, 2015
There are other concerns though too, including a slight frame and his appearance of being a one-trick pony as a long ball guy. While Marvin Jones is known a bit more of a deep threat, he has rounded himself out nicely since his rookie year, working more short and intermediate throws into his repertoire. Does Fuller has the same room for similar development?
My stance is see who you lose in free agency, if anyone (Jones or Mohamed Sanu), and grab a similar replacement from there. If Jones bolts, maybe look at the deep threats in Thomas or Fuller as a speed complement to A.J. Green. Sanu was a versatile chain-mover out of the slot, so if they keep Jones and Sanu bails, maybe grab more of a bigger, possession-type. If they keep both Sanu and Jones, I'd still like to see them take a guy within the first handful of rounds to bolster the group and give Andy Dalton even more weapons.
As I sit here on the weekend of the Combine, I'm almost thinking the Bengals wait to see who falls in their lap in round two. While that might seem high for a position they might end up being okay at after free agency, think about the recent drop-offs that have occurred in the draft between the end of round one and into round two with wide receivers flying off the board. Maybe they go with a linebacker or defensive line in the first round with a receiver next. And, maybe Fuller is that guy, as some believe him to be a fringe first/middle second round guy at this point.
@CincyJungle Can we please draft a center? Okay that is not quite a question as a statement but is there at least anyone we might look at?— Danne D (@QuizGuy66) February 23, 2016
If you were to poll most Bengals fans this offseason, my guess is center would be the starting position they would point to for an upgrade, free agency departures notwithstanding. Admittedly, I'm not as hard on Russell Bodine as others, but there are obvious warts. Two years into his starting status, I guess I'd put him below Kyle Cook and above Jeff Faine and Eric Ghiaciuc as far as recent Bengals starters at center go. Is that even saying much?
The Bengals and their coaching staff are completely obstinate when it comes to admitting a mistake on a player--especially one they made a eyebrow-raising move for. As I stated earlier in this post, when it comes to the Bengals moving up in the draft, you can count on one hand and have fingers left over. Bodine was one of those rare occasions in the fourth round of 2014's haul.
There are times, mostly against lesser opponents, where Bodine looks pretty stout at the point of attack and gets to the next level. Other times, particularly against big nose tackles and/or complex 3-4 defenses, Bodine relinquishes pressure and can't get push for running backs. In his rookie year, the Bengals ranked sixth in rushing as a team, but dropped to No. 13 in 2015. It not only points to Bodine's inconsistencies, but others on the line and that of Jeremy Hill in his sophomore campaign.
Because of their reluctance to admit when they have made an error on a player and offensive line/assistant head coach Paul Alexander's allowance to do whatever he wants with the Bengals' line, I don't know if we'll see a new starting center in 2016. If they buck a trend though and look for one, there are a couple in this year's draft class i'm eyeing.
In keeping with the Notre Dame trend of this post, Nick Martin seems to have the traits Alexander loves in his linemen. He's nasty and versatile (likely able to play center or guard in the NFL), while also coming from strong lineage, as his older brother Zack is already an All-Pro with the Dallas Cowboys. Some scouts have compared him to Alex Mack and John Sullivan, but we know how much water that holds with a player who has never played an NFL snap. Martin should be available in the third round of the draft, but sound workouts and the dissolving of concern from a 2013 knee injury could push him into the second.
The other many might not know of is Missouri's Evan Boehm. Truth be told, I didn't know much about him until CJ colleague Cody Tewmey told me about him at the NFLPA Bowl. His biggest assets are intelligence, tenacity and durability, but some say he struggled against the better SEC defenses last year.
There are a number of positions the Bengals should look to add competition, with center being in that group. They should be always asking themselves how they're getting better and what they need to do to move forward in the playoffs and maybe they start here. If they do, it might go against some of their old habits.