We're now just over a month away from the 2016 NFL Draft kicking off.
To this point, the Bengals have done a good job of keeping their roster intact enough that they're capable of competing for a spot in the Super Bowl next year. But just like all 31 other teams, there's plenty of areas needing to be addressed that may otherwise hinder them from reaching their ultimate goal.
That's why this year's draft may end up being the most important one of the Marvin Lewis era in terms of needing instant-impact players. Lewis and his regime have been great at taking guys and developing them into star players, but they really need someone to come in and make a positive impact as a rookie now more than ever to be a title contender.
That's why the 24th-overall pick this year needs to land Cincinnati a guy who will immediately upgrade a position of weakness. ESPN's Mel Kiper just put out his ranking of this draft's top 104 prospects and divided them into six tiers. He only gave out 21 first-round grades for this year's class, and many of them are guys at a position of need for Cincy that could fall to 24.
We're going to guess that no one from Kiper's first or second tiers will fall to Cincinnati, so here's a look at his third tier and which prospects the Bengals may look at:
These players carry late first-round grades.
13. Laquon Treadwell, WR, Mississippi (91)
15. Jarran Reed, DT, Alabama (91)
16. Sheldon Rankins, DT, Louisville (91)
18. Andrew Billings, DT, Baylor (90)
21. Josh Doctson, WR, TCU (90)
This tier starts to give you a sense for just how deep the defensive tackle class is this year. Reed, Rankins and Billings all have intriguing, if not fully developed, skill sets. Reed is, quite simply, the most dominant run-defender in this class. Rankins is more than capable of developing into an every-down player who plays multiple spots along the D-line. And Billings is an out-of-this-world athlete with the first-step quickness to win early.
At this point, I think defensive tackle is an area the Bengals will consider addressing in Round 1, but only if the right guy is on the board. Age is beginning to hit this position with Pat Sims (turns 31 in Nov.) and Domata Peko (turns 32 in Nov.) now into their 30s. We've still not figured out what Marcus Hardison is capable of, and Geno Atkins can't hold down the position alone.
So this could quickly become a serious weakness if another young tackle isn't added to the mix this year. That's why guys like Alabama's Jarran Reed, Louisville's Sheldon Rankins and Baylor's Andrew Billings should draw consideration with the 24th pick.
But if the Bengals do what everyone expects and draft a receiver, there aren't many guys worthy of the 24th pick based on Kiper's rankings. Laquon Treadwell should be well off the board by the time Cincy is on the clock, which leaves Josh Doctson as the only first-round prospect that Kiper values as a tier three player.
The good news is, Kiper's fourth tier of players includes two more receivers that will likely draw consideration at pick No. 24, as well as some more defensive tackles worthy of that pick.
Would rather not reach for these prospects late in the first round, but they're good value picks in the first half of Round 2.
22. Vernon Butler, DT, Louisiana Tech (89)
23. Will Fuller, WR, Notre Dame (89)
24. Jaylon Smith, OLB, Notre Dame (89)
26. Eli Apple, CB, Ohio State (89)
28. Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Mississippi (88)
29. Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor (88)
34. Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson (88)
35. A'Shawn Robinson, DT, Alabama (87)
36. Austin Johnson, DT, Penn State (87)
37. Noah Spence, OLB, Eastern Kentucky (87)
39. Ryan Kelly, C, Alabama (86)
43. Adolphus Washington, DT, Ohio State (86)
Yes, I only have first-round grades on 21 players, but with 31 picks in Round 1 this year, a host of prospects from this tier are sure to come off the board ahead of where their grades suggest they should.
Seeing Notre Dame's Will Fuller ranked ahead of Baylor's Corey Coleman only reinforces what we said Tuesday in that you'll see this draft's top four or five receiver prospects ranked in a variety of orders. Fuller is the fourth or fifth-best guy in many analysts' eyes, but Kiper thinks he's the third best and better than Coleman, who some believe is this draft's best receiver.
Once we get into Kiper's fifth tier of prospects, that's when pretty much anyone could be in play outside of an offensive tackle, running back, quarterback or tight end.
These players are middle or late second-round prospects.
45. Kenny Clark, DT, UCLA (84)
46. William Jackson III, CB, Houston (84)
47. Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State (84)
49. Keanu Neal, S, Florida (84)
51. Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma (82)
52. Hassan Ridgeway, DT, Texas (82)
54. Braxton Miller, WR, Ohio State (81)
55. Joshua Garnett, OG, Stanford (80)
58. Maliek Collins, DT, Nebraska (80)
59. Willie Henry, DT, Michigan (80)
60. Su'a Cravens, S, USC (80)
62. Will Redmond, CB, Mississippi State (80)
Again, it's a good year to need a defensive tackle; teams will find some great talent at the position deep into Round 2. That also figures to be when WRs who thrive in the slot (Shepard and Miller, in particular) will start getting a look.
Of these names, Ohio State's Michael Thomas, UCLA's Kenny Clark and Oklahoma's Sterling Shepard have been mentioned as first-round prospects for Cincinnati. However, Kiper's rankings suggest those are guys the Bengals could wait until Round 2 to select.
As for Kiper's sixth and final tier, here's a look at which players from there could be in consideration for the Bengals in Round 2:
These players are third-round prospects. They could develop into solid starters, but they either have limited upside or come with a higher element of risk than players worth drafting in the first two rounds.
63. Artie Burns, CB, Miami (FL) (79)
64. Sheldon Day, DT, Notre Dame (79)
65. Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina (79)
66. Jeremy Cash, S, Duke (79)
68. Jordan Jenkins, OLB, Georgia (79)
69. Jihad Ward, DE, Illinois (79)
70. Nick Martin, OC, Notre Dame (79)
71. Carl Nassib, DE, Penn State (78)
72. Leonte Carroo, WR, Rutgers (78)
73. Joshua Perry, ILB, Ohio State (78)
74. Nick Kwiatkoski, ILB, West Virginia (77)
75. Chris Moore, WR, Cincinnati (77)
77. Antonio Morrison, OLB, Florida (77)
78. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State (77)
79. Eric Murray, CB, Minnesota (77)
80. Darian Thompson, S, Boise State (77)
81. Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh (76)
82. Jonathan Bullard, DE, Florida (76)
This is a long list, so let's start at the top. Burns' extremely long arms and ability to play press coverage give him a lot of upside as a cornerback. Ward's tape suggests he's a better run-defender than a pass-rusher, but at the Senior Bowl, he flashed a little in one-on-one drills getting after the quarterback.
Of this group, I think South Carolina's Pharoh Cooper and Pitt's Tyler Boyd could be possible Bengals targets if a receiver isn't drafted in Round 1. Both Boyd and Cooper have been touted as guys who could possibly sneak into the end of Round 1, but more likely will go in Round 2. Kiper doesn't appear to be as high on them, but I would be fine with Cincinnati taking either of them in Round 2.
Of all the names mentioned above, which one(s) intrigue you the most for the Bengals?