The Cincinnati Bengals have been notorious for maintaining one of the NFL's deepest rosters, but this season, the team finally has some true draft needs.
This offseason, the Bengals were able to re-sign George Iloka, Adam Jones, Vincent Rey and Pat Sims to multi-year contracts but were unable to retain Marvin Jones or Mohamed Sanu. Though many people would like to see Reggie Nelson return to Cincinnati, a reunion seems very unlikely, because Nelson would need to take a deal near the veteran minimum and a reduced role to make the team. Filling the departed players' shoes will be no easy task, and with 17 players hitting free agency in 2017, the Bengals will need to prepare for future needs.
1. Wide Receiver
This need is fairly obvious. While A.J. Green remains an elite wide receiver, the dropoff between he and Brandon Tate, currently listed as the team's second wide receiver, is significant. The Bengals signed Brandon LaFell today, and he'll take the No. 2 role, for now, heading into the draft. But with James Wright and Jake Kumerow rounding out the current group, Cincinnati is still in desperate need of a real No. 2 pass-catcher.
This year's draft class has some intriguing prospects, but the Bengals are reportedly highest on Ohio State wide receiver Michael Thomas. The notion that Thomas is a first round wideout seems a bit ridiculous, considering the fact that Laquon Treadwell, Corey Coleman and Josh Doctson will all likely come off the board before him, and even Will Fuller and/or Tyler Boyd could pass him up in the draft. Last season, six wide receivers came off the board in the first round, but that could be partially attributed to a historically dominant 2014 wide receiving draft class. This year, I only expect three wide receivers to come off the board in Round 1, and NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah mocked three wideouts in the first round of his latest mock draft.
Though wide receiver is easily the Bengals' biggest need, this doesn't necessarily mean that the team will try to fill the need in the first round. Even if Michael Thomas comes off the board before the Bengals have a chance to draft him, guys like Will Fuller, Tyler Boyd, Pharoh Cooper, Sterling Shepard and Braxton Miller could still be around in Round 2, and plenty of guys will be available even later in the draft. Let's not forget that Marvin Jones was a fifth round selection and T.J. Houshmandzadeh was a seventh-rounder. The Bengals could take a patient approach in the draft when it comes to wide receiver; after all, they still have A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert on the roster.
The Bengals selected Dre Kirkpatrick in the first round of the 2012 Draft and Darqueze Dennard in the first round of the 2014 Draft, so the question remains: will Cincinnati continue the streak of picking a corner in the first round of every other draft? Whether the Bengals pick a corner in Round 1 or Round 7, it seems certain that the team will take a corner.
Kirkpatrick, who was consistently burned last year, is still the team's number two corner, and he'll be a free agent after this season. Kirkpatrick has shown bright moments, and Bengals fans all hope he can emerge as the playmaker he was once expected to be when he was selected in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. If Kirkpatrick can't show progress, however, the Bengals could end up letting him walk in free agency. And even if Kirkpatrick progresses, Cincinnati still needs depth at corner. Leon Hall has made a couple of visits with other teams, and he probably won't return to Cincinnati. While Dennard could be a solid replacement as the team's slot corner, he is coming off a serious injury.
Eli Apple, Mackensie Alexander and William Jackson III could all be solid first or second round options, depending on how the draft falls. The Bengals also seem to like third round prospect Zack Sanchez. Where the Bengals will take a corner, who the selection will be and how many corners the team will pick remains a mystery, but the odds of Cincinnati drafting a corner in April are very high.
3. Defensive Tackle
The Bengals will likely place Brandon Thompson on PUP to start the season, and DeShawn Williams, the team's sixth defensive tackle on a contract will have to have an impressive training camp and preseason to make the 53-man roster. Ahead of him are Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, Marcus Hardison and Pat Sims. Cincinnati needs to draft a defensive tackle, specifically a nose tackle, to serve as Peko's long-term replacement. Defensive tackle is the deepest position in the draft, so it's tricky to predict whether the Bengals will elect to take a defensive tackle early or wait until late in the draft to address the need.
As previously mentioned, fans would love to see Nelson return, but I just don't see it happening. Nelson led the league in interceptions last season, so taking a deal near the veteran minimum and a drastically reduced role seems very far from likely. George Iloka and Shawn Williams will be the team's starting safeties this season, but Williams will be a free agent in 2017. The Bengals liked what they saw in him last season, but Williams has only started four games in his NFL career. He'll need to prove he's a reliable player and durable enough to be the team's long-term starter.
Even if the Bengals expect to re-sign Williams after next season, they really only have Taylor Mays, Derron Smith and Josh Shaw behind the two starters. And due to a significantly high number of linebackers on the roster, it's unlikely Mays will even be on the team's roster by Week 8. The Bengals will need to take a safety at some point in this year's or next year's draft, but the safe move would be taking a safety now.
5. Defensive End
The Bengals have likely moved on from Wallace Gilberry, which means that Will Clarke, Margus Hunt and Marcus Hardison are the team's three top backup defensive ends on the roster. While I still believe Clarke and Hardison have a chance of developing into the players the Bengals envisioned, nothing I've seen suggests they are ready to see significant snaps this season. As a result, I expect the Bengals to take a defensive end at some point in this year's draft.
I'd love to see the Bengals take Carl Nassib, Shawn Oakman, Bronson Kaufusi or Jihad Ward, and I expect that if the Bengals draft a defensive end, it will likely be one of these four players. Cincinnati loves tall defensive ends, and all four of these players stand at 6-foot-5 or taller. Nassib led the nation in sacks last season despite missing two games; Oakman had more tackles, TFL's, sacks and forced fumbles than Margus Hunt had in college, despite playing an entire season less than the Estonian; Kaufusi recorded 11 sacks last season and Ward, who made the switch to defensive end in junior college, has yet to near his ceiling as a player.
None of these players, or any defensive end the Bengals would draft, would start, barring an injury, but any of the aforementioned players could see limited snaps in a backup role or in nickel packages. The Bengals need pass-rushers not named Carlos Dunlap or Geno Atkins; adding one of these guys would be a huge help.
6. Interior Offensive Line
I get it; Bengals fans don't think Russell Bodine is the answer at center. I'm higher on him than most, given the fact that he's just 23-years-old and hasn't even hit his prime, but the Bengals' lack of depth on the interior line is a need, whether you think Bodine needs to be replaced or not.
Bodine played every snap of the 2015 season. His backup, T.J. Johnson, has played 22 career offensive snaps and would not be suited to play center in the case of an injury along the interior of the offensive line. The Bengals should consider drafting an interior offensive lineman who can play guard or center, as he'll back up Bodine and both the guards.
Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling are both excellent guards, but Zeitler will hit free agency in 2017 and the two players don't have a reliable backup. While Jake Fisher could back up these guys inside, that would leave Eric Winston as the team's sole backup offensive tackle.
Ultimately, the Bengals just need depth on the offensive line. Even if the Bengals were to draft USC center Ryan Kelly, it's highly unlikely Kelly would see any more than 30 snaps on the season, barring an injury to a starter. But with a historically high number of concussions in 2015 and an extensive amount of injuries to offensive lineman around the league, the Bengals need to play it safe and establish depth behind Boling, Bodine and Zeitler. If Cincinnati is unable to work out a long-term with Zeitler in 2017, the player the Bengals select could end up starting just a year from now.
7. Running Back
Don't look now, but the Bengals could be very running-back needy a year from now. Cincinnati only has five running backs currently signed to contracts, and Jeremy Hill is the only one of those players who is signed beyond the 2016 season. The Bengals will certainly try to bring back Giovani Bernard and Rex Burkhead, and if Cedric Peerman follows up his Pro Bowl season with another year of quality special teams play, he could be back, too. But the losses of Terrell Watson and James Wilder Jr. leave Bronson Hill as the only developmental running back on Cincinnati's roster. Drafting a running back would be a solid insurance policy, in case the Bengals were to lose Bernard or Burkhead in free agency next season.
8. Offensive Tackle
Paul Alexander has made several visits with developmental offensive tackles, which indicates the Bengals are looking for an additional tackle to develop. Andrew Whitworth will be a free agent after this season, and while his play has yet to drop off, his age remains a cause for concern. Even if Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher are the solutions as the team's long-term offensive tackles, the Bengals wouldn't have a reliable backup behind the two if Whitworth were to retire or find a suitor in free agency.
With the signings of Karlos Dansby and Taylor Mays, who I consider nickel linebackers, the Bengals now have 11 linebackers on the roster. Jeff Luc and Trevor Roach figure to battle it out for a spot or two on the practice squad, which leaves Taylor Mays, A.J. Hawk, Jayson Dimanche and Marquis Flowers to fight for a spot or two behind Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga, Karlos Dansby, Vincent Rey and P.J. Dawson on the roster. With so many linebackers, do the Bengals even need to draft a linebacker? I'd argue there isn't enough space on the roster.
Kicker isn't an immediate position of need, as Mike Nugent is under contract for the 2016 season. But if Roberto Aguayo were to last until the third, fourth or fifth round, I'd hope the Bengals would give him serious consideration. Mike Nugent is signed through 2016 and it would be wise for the Bengals to find a better option sooner rather than later to replace him; so, why not draft his replacement now? Even if Aguayo comes off the board, Ka'imi Fairbairn could be an option in the sixth or seventh round. However, the fact that the Bengals haven't drafted a kicker since 2000 and only hold seven draft picks remain reasons for skepticism of the team selecting a kicker this year.