The Bengals continued their Pro Day ventures on Tuesday with a short drive down I-75 to watch the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers put their NFL talent on display.
It's not often the team in Bowling Green has the best team in the Bluegrass state, but that was the case this year as the Toppers went 12-2 with their lone losses being at LSU and at Indiana. WKU was powered by an explosive offense led by two guys who are now likely to hear their names called during the 2016 NFL Draft.
The one many know is quarterback Brandon Doughty, a Heisman contender who lit up college football with his gaudy numbers over the past two years. After being granted a medical hardship waiver and a sixth year of eligibility, Doughty lived up to lofty preseason expectations and surpassed even his record-shattering performance from 2014.
Doughty again led the country in passing yards (5,055) and touchdown throws (48) to go with a national-best 71.9 completion percentage. He led the Hilltoppers to their first-ever FBS conference championship, first-ever AP Top-25 ranking and a second consecutive bowl victory.
The 6'3", 213-pound gunslinger also became just the third college QB in the last 50 years to lead the country in all three categories, joining Colt Brennan (Hawai'i, 2006) and Steve Young (BYU, 1983), per the school's official website.
That's a pretty broad range in terms of NFL careers, given the fact Brennan was out of the pros quickly, whereas Young enjoyed a Hall-of-Fame career with the 49ers. It's more likely Dougherty is somewhere in the middle as he played well against quality defenses, whereas Brennan did most of his damage against a cupcake-loaded WAC schedule in 2007.
I think he has the potential to be a quality NFL backup, possibly even a fringe starter (especially if we're talking Browns). He's also someone who could push AJ McCarron for the backup job, and if he loses, likely make it to the practice squad for 2016. I think the Bengals will consider drafting Doughty, but not until Round 5 at the earliest.
Right now, he's projected to go anywhere between Round 4-7. It looks like it may end up being higher with his stock rising this offseason. I still expect him to go in the middle of Day 3.
While you can debate if the Bengals should even consider Doughty, you could make a strong case for his favorite target being someone Cincinnati should strongly consider. Tyler Higbee signed with WKU as a wide receiver in 2011 and left in 2015 as a first-team All-Conference USA pick who tied for the nation's best among tight ends with eight scores.
Much of his production came against C-USA foes, but watching Higbee against them looks much like what Tyler Eifert would look like against them.
And while Higbee probably isn't quite the next Eifert, he would have been a high draft pick had he not suffered a serious knee sprain that effectively cost him seven games in 2015. The fact he caught 38 balls for 563 yards and eight scores in just seven full games shows how great he was.
In fact, his three best games were against the best competition he faced in Vanderbilt (4 catches for 102 yards and 1 TD), Indiana (11 for 109 and 1 TD) and Marshall (6 for 92 and 2 TDs). Vandy and Indiana both ranked in the top 35 in total defense and top 26 in scoring passes allowed, so those were no slouches that Higbee lit up.
Oh, and as for who repped Cincinnati at Higbee's Pro Day, it was tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes. I'd say the Bengals are interested in Higbee.
As for his pro comparison, NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compared Higbee to Jordan Cameron, a Pro Bowl-caliber player if not for his injury issues.
Higbee has exciting athleticism and speed in the open field with the ability to separate from safeties on intermediate routes and threaten the deep middle. Higbee has soft, reliable hands and plus run-after-catch ability to finish plays. While he needs to beef up his frame and blocking ability, there is no doubting his pass catching talent.
I'm already willing to call Higbee an upgrade over C.J. Uzomah and someone who would give Tyler Kroft a strong push for the backup tight end spot. That's a big role in this offense and I'd love having a guy of Higbee's talents waiting in the wings.
And heck, with the thin receiving corps, it's possible the Bengals go with a lot more two-tight end sets and could feature Higbee and Kroft a lot in 2016. Higbee is fully capable of lining up at receiver and getting open at the pro level.
One other note: The Bengals were one of just two teams not at Florida State's Pro Day on Tuesday. The Noles typically feature a wealth of NFL talent, but their only big prospect this year is Jalen Ramsey, who's expected to be drafted in the top five picks and may go first overall. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was among the coaches and scouts in attendance at FSU and was notably giving kicker Roberto Aguayo a good look (and a hard time).