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Bengals Mailbag: Mario Alford and 2016 NFL Draft positional double-dipping

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We answer some of the burning questions on the minds of our readers, as we all gear up for the NFL Draft. Send us your questions to be answered in this weekly feature!

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The NFL Draft is less than a week away, and the suspense is on regarding the Bengals' plans for next weekend,. There is a bit of an enigmatic nature to where the team will look to bolster their roster. There are a handful of positions that seem like obvious choices to replenish in the early rounds, but in doing so, it brings more questions about some of the existing interesting players already under contract.

We received a number of reader questions this week, and this portion revolves around a second-year wide receiver and some areas the team might look to take more than one player at a similar position. Send us your questions via Twitter or email to have them answered in this weekly feature!

Every year, Bengals fans (rightfully) like Dylan and @AngryCIncyFan gripe about another year with Brandon Tate as the primary special teams returner, and every year the team disappoints its fan base by annually keeping Tate on the 53-man final roster. Truth be told, I figured this offseason would finally be the one where the Bengals would cut the cord and move on to someone like Alford to take over most of the return duties--especially on kickoffs, which is an area in which Alford particularly excelled in college at West Virginia.

Yet, the Bengals, for all of their positive steps made under Marvin Lewis since 2003, display two characteristics that embody the team's historical willingness which has kept Tate around since 2011: stubbornness and loyalty to a fault. Tate is a coach's player--one who does what is asked and makes what they perceive as minimal mistakes in the often-overlooked area of special teams. Obviously, fans feel differently.

After having scoring two kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2010, Tate became expendable to the Patriots the following offseason, and landed with the Bengals. Since managing the bulk of the punt and kickoff returns with Cincinnati over the past five seasons, Tate has just one punt return for a touchdown. And, while the college and pro games are on completely different levels of competition, Alford had two kickoff returns on just 26 returns in the 2014 season.

With the Bengals losing wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu in free agency, a lot of eyes have been cast toward Alford, James WrightJake Kumerow and their potential impact in 2016. Alford, though only logging one catch for 15 yards as a rookie, was the only one of the three to make the final roster in 2015. Wright was on the PUP list due to microfracture surgery after a knee injury he suffered at the end of 2014 never healed properly.

Because of that, I'll answer Dylan's question of "what do they do with Alford if the team drafts two wide receivers?" with this: you keep him around. There are a number of things coaches can teach a raw receiver, but 4.4-40-yard speed just isn't one of them. Whether it's on the outside as the occasional speed supplement to A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell and/or a rookie, or in the slot as he lined up with Cincinnati in 2015, Alford's speed is a valuable commodity. It should be especially coveted because of the slow 40-yard dash times churned out by the 2016 receiver prospects at the Combine.

What the Bengals should do with Alford, regardless of the receivers they take, actually answers both fan questions: Alford should get a legitimate shot to supplant Tate as a returner and speed threat at receiver in 2016. We've said this since the league approved rules to clamp down on kick returns, but Cincinnati needs a player who can consistently contribute as a receiver, along with some return ability, to maximize roster efficiency.

I actually take a bit more of the coaches' side with Tate over the fans, but his total contributions to the team as of today, against his time spent in Cincinnati brings an imbalance to the scales. Based on overall college production, especially against particularly stiffer competition, Alford seems to have the upper hand over Wright and Kumerow as a long-term prospect. Sure, Kumerow has the height and Wright has the SEC pedigree, but I see Alford as the guy who can help the Bengals in a complementary way in the near future because of what he did at WVU.

So, keep him around, give him the proper chances in the preseason to prove himself, and, most importantly, throw the biases with Tate out the window in 2016.

*****

Wide receiver seems to almost be a given for the usage of two picks in this year's draft after the exodus of Jones and Sanu. One should be taken in the first couple of rounds, with another likely being selected in the mid-rounds, which is somewhat similar to what happened in 2012, with Sanu being a third rounder and Jones being selected by the Bengals in the fifth round that year.

Linebacker might be a little less likely as a double-dip area, unless we're counting a "'tweener" defensive end/outside linebacker type. With the Bengals bringing in Karlos Dansby and nickel safety/outside linebacker Taylor Mays in free agency this year, as well as adding both A.J. Hawk (free agency) and P.J. Dawson (draft) last year, I just don't know if two true 4-3 linebackers are in the cards with just seven total picks this year--especially if an early pick is used.

Furthermore, I don't know if any position other than receiver will be selected twice in the 2016 draft class. However, I do see the Bengals targeting versatile players who can potentially play multiple positions in the NFL coinciding with another pick's skill set, even if the announced positions differ. The most obvious that stands out is with interior offensive line and swing defensive end/tackle players.

Fan dissatisfaction with starting center Russell Bodine is at an all-time high, and right guard Kevin Zeitler, who is lined up for free agency after 2016, makes swing players on the offensive line seem to be a priority--even with two versatile players selected in the top two rounds last year. USC's Max Tuerk is a guy who played four of the five line positions effectively in college, but is nursing a knee injury, while Stanford's Kyle Murphy could play tackle or guard, and Missouri's Evan Boehm is a mean center who could play guard in a pinch. All of these guys should be available in rounds 3-5.

You could say defensive tackle might warrant two picks, but with both Brandon Thompson and Pat Sims re-signing this offseason, will there be room once Thompson is available off of the PUP List? So, there might not be two true players selected at one position outside of receiver, but some players could play overlapping roles.