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2012 vs 2016: Bengals should pass on a wide receiver in the first round

The Bengals waited until the third round to take Mohamed Sanu in 2012; could they hold on a wide receiver in 2016?

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Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012, the Bengals faced an all-too-familiar dilemma. By the end of the 2011 season, A.J. Green had cemented himself as Cincinnati's top pass-catcher, but the team's second and third options in the passing game, Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell, hit free agency and ended up signing elsewhere.

Despite this, Cincinnati seemed to have more glaring needs. The Bengals selected Dre Kirkpatrick to shore up their aging secondary and Kevin Zeitler to solidify their offensive line. Though neither player has developed into a Pro Bowl-caliber player (though there's still time for that to happen), the Bengals made the right call passing on an early pass-catcher. Four wideouts made it into the first round of the 2012 Draft, and none of those receivers have earned a Pro Bowl nod.

In 2016, the circumstances are relatively similar, yet people seem to be all over the place when it comes to Cincinnati. The loudest voices are pushing for a wide receiver to play opposite Green and alongside Tyler Eifert, as well as the newly acquired Brandon LaFell. But will the Bengals take a pass-catcher early?

The differences between the Bengals' rosters heading into the 2012 Draft and the 2016 Draft aren't huge, but they're distinguishable enough. In 2011, Jerome Simpson accounted for a higher percentage of the Bengals' receiving yards, and the argument that Andy Dalton needed help at wide receiver was much stronger then than it is today. So the argument that the Bengals need to draft a replacement for Marvin Jones early, at least to me, seems shaky at best.

In the 2012 season, the Bengals expanded Jermaine Gresham's role to compensate Simpson's loss, and it worked. Second-year receiver Andrew Hawkins and free agency acquisition Brandon Tate also stepped up in the passing game, combining for 755 receiving yards and five touchdowns, as well as allowing rookies Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones to develop. The two rookies started a combined eight games, tallying just 355 yards and five touchdowns.

The notion of a rookie wideout coming in, immediately becoming the Bengals' second option in the passing game, let alone starting, seems a bit outrageous.

Barring injury, I expect A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert to lead the team in receiving yards in 2016, and I firmly believe Brandon LaFell, barring injury, will finish third in yards. Eifert will definitely play an expanded role, and the team could return to its run-oriented offensive attack like it had established in 2014. Ryan Hewitt and Tyler Kroft could also see more playing time and the Bengals could start using more two tight end sets, like they've wanted to and been trying to set up to do for years.

Would adding Laquon Treadwell, Corey Coleman, Josh Doctson, Will Fuller, Michael Thomas or any other rookie receiver give the Bengals any better chances of winning a Super Bowl in 2016? Probably not. Would adding a top 15 prospect increase those odds? Probably not. The Bengals will continue to stick to their draft formula and focus on building a competitive roster, not necessarily satisfying fans and so-called draft experts. And I'm on board with that strategy.

Since selecting Kirkpatrick and Zeitler in 2012, the Bengals have become less and less predictable. In 2013, they took Eifert with a first-rounder, despite Gresham, a former first round pick, still on the roster. In 2014, Cincinnati predictably added Darqueze Dennard, but turned heads by taking Jeremy Hill with its second-rounder. In 2015, many people expected the Bengals to take an offensive tackle in the first round, but seemingly no one expected Cedric Ogbuehi to be the team's first rounder. Additionally, the Bengals' double-dipping at offensive tackle in the first two rounds caught everyone off-guard.

"So who will the Bengals take with their first round pick?" you ask.

To me, there are a few avenues Cincinnati can take. The club has yet to draft Domata Peko's replacement, so a nose tackle would make a lot of sense. A corner would also make sense, considering Kirkpatrick's expiring contract and the expected decision not to bring back Leon Hall in free agency. A linebacker would make sense, even with the recent acquisition of Karlos Dansby. Finally, a defensive end who fills out the rotation and eventually serves as Michael Johnson's replacement would make sense.

In regards to other options, there's a slight chance Cincinnati could go safety, if they feel Shawn Williams isn't a long-term solution, though letting Reggie Nelson walk indicates that the Bengals are confident they'll be able to lock up Williams long-term. Another longshot would be an interior offensive lineman, if the Bengals think they'll be unable to retain Zeitler in free agency in 2017.

But taking a number two wide receiver in the first round? Would taking a first round receiver prospect really help the team more than spending that first-rounder on defense and finding a pass-catcher on Day 2? I just don't see it.

Pro Football Focus reaffirmed my belief, arguing that the Bengals could find a replacement at receiver on Day 2 of the Draft.

Day 1 need: Wide receiver

Day 2 fix: Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma

The Bengals saw wide receivers Marvin Jones (Detroit) and Mohamed Sanu (Atlanta) sign elsewhere in free agency, which is why they've been connected to WR prospects as early as their first-round No. 24 overall pick. But instead of drafting a Laquon Treadwell or Josh Doctson at that spot, Cincinnati could potentially score a tremendous value with their second-round pick (No. 55) in Shepard. He was PFF's top-graded college WR in 2015 (just like Tyler Lockett was in 2014 before becoming a breakout third-round rookie for Seattle last season), and would be an ideal weapon out of the slot to pair with outside WR A.J. Green and seam-stretching tight end Tyler Eifert. Shepard has sneaky deep-threat ability, too: He caught 11 of 17 deep targets including four TDs and zero drops, good for a 65 deep-ball catch rate that ranks third in the class.

When they're on the clock, if the Bengals truly think the best remaining receiver is the best player available, they'll likely pull the trigger. But don't be surprised if they decide to draft a different position in the first round.