The Cincinnati Bengals are looking to 2017 after a 6-9-1 finish this year. Indications are that little, if any coaching changes will take place this offseason, so the team will need to strike gold in free agency and the NFL Draft if they want to turn things around next season. The questions we’ve been receiving this week center around player personnel decisions the Bengals will be making this spring.
In my initial mock draft, I had the Bengals taking Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett at No. 9 overall. With Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap both approaching a decade’s worth of experience in the NFL and the team being a bit more inconsistent rushing the passer this year as a whole, it seems to make sense. When you’re in a division with Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco, pressuring the quarterback is key.
But then, the National Championship played out on Monday night.
With two high-profile teams taking the field to crown a champ, a lot of Bengals fans had their eyes on quality prospects the team will have on their board this spring. Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams was at the top of the list and he absolutely shined on the big-time stage.
After taking a shot to the head early on against Alabama, Williams returned in a big way and logged eight catches for 94 yards and a score. A few of his catches were complete highlight reel-type of plays to get Clemson back into the game. Have a look:
Mike Williams: The WR1 in the 2017 NFL Draft pic.twitter.com/DPdAZccEUz— 2017 NFL Draft (@DraftRT) January 10, 2017
BRUH MIKE WILLIAMS IS AN ANIMAL!! pic.twitter.com/cJuGu7R3SE— Insane Athletes (@Insane_Athletes) January 10, 2017
So, here’s the thing: many would argue that Cincinnati has bigger needs at defensive end or linebacker than receiver. Another name being kicked around for the Bengals at No. 9 is Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster, who had a great game of his own with 12 total tackles and a sack in the Championship game.
So, there are a couple ways of thinking here. While receiver might fall down the pecking order, in terms of need, take a look at the Bengals’ struggles in the passing game—particularly in the red zone in 2016. Williams isn’t the total burner most fans want Cincinnati to add this offseason, but he can definitely stretch the field with his wide range of abilities.
Additionally, look at the Bengals’ offense without A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert (which is becoming a startling trend) this year. It was rather vanilla and opposing defenses showed zero respect for the downfield passing game. If you have a guy like Williams to pick up the slack along with the likes of Tyler Boyd and maybe even Brandon LaFell, should he return, Dalton could once again sniff an MVP nod, as he did with his plethora of weapons at his disposal in 2015. Cincinnati had seven games of 31 or more points scored in 2015, as opposed to just two games with that score in 2016.
Imagine formations with the 6’4” Green, 6’3” Williams and 6’6” Eifert. If all three are healthy at the same time, the red zone woes the Bengals’ offense faced in Ken Zampese’s rookie year as coordinator should dissipate quickly in 2017.
But, stout defenses always seem to reign supreme in the AFC North. The Ravens, who were in the playoff race until Christmas, finished with the No. 5 rushing defense, while the Steelers had the 12th-ranked overall defense. Unsurprisingly, a top trait for the Bengals during their five straight postseason berths was their intimidating defense. Whether it was under Mike Zimmer or Paul Guenther, the Bengals have always employed savvy defenders with immense size and strength.
However, speed is the missing component on that side of the ball. At 6’3” and 265 pounds, Barnett brings a different element off the edge than the 6’6”, 280-pound duo of Dunlap and Johnson. Additionally, Foster’s speed and high football IQ would also mesh well with Vontaze Burfict in the middle of the defense. With Andrew Billings returning to the defense this year, a pick of Barnett or Foster seems to let the rich get richer.
Whichever route they go should immensely help their team from day one in 2017. And, with their picking at the top of each round, quality players should fall to them often. However, I’m hesitant to believe quality pass-rushers will be readily available in round two. It’s happened before, as evidenced by Cincinnati grabbing Dunlap in the second round back in 2010, but in today’s NFL it is becoming increasingly rare.
Regardless, I think one of the trio of Williams, Foster or Barnett will be the pick in April. If the Bengals really want to make a splash to improve their team, they might want to maneuver back into the end of the first round to get two high-impact players. If you’re asking who I prefer at the moment, given who I think will be available, Barnett and Williams are 1A and 1B, with Foster being a very nice consolation prize.
@CincyJungle Are there any free agent OL that we could target as an upgrade so, that we could focus on defense and playmakers in the draft?— Da Brute Rules (@DaBruteRules) January 10, 2017
@CincyJungle If the Bengals still believe in the development of the young tackles then would a free agent OL or high draft pick be a waste?— Da Brute Rules (@DaBruteRules) January 10, 2017
This one is tricky. Bengals right guard Kevin Zeitler and left tackle Andrew Whitworth seem to be two of the better options that are set to hit free agency for any time, so Cincinnati’s sometimes-frustrating approach of focusing inward in free agency might be the best route for the offensive line.
Whitworth is 35-years-old and though his play dipped a tad this year, his value as a player and locker room leader can’t be ignored. His value becomes especially apparent with the struggles of both Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher so far. Zeitler might be expensive, but he remains a valuable mauler in the Bengals’ trenches.
If you look at the list of impending offensive line free agents, many former top picks who have had their ups and downs litter the list. Luke Joeckel, who has played both tackle and guard, is on there, as are Matt Kalil, Sebastian Vollmer and Chance Warmack. However, these will only be options should the Bengals fail to re-sign Zeitler and/or Whitworth.
If we’re gauging fan attitudes, particularly those here at Cincy Jungle, center seems to be the position most will be wondering about upgrading. After two seasons of struggles, Russell Bodine marginally improved his play in 2016, but we’re still looking at an average-at-best player at the position. In terms of free agents at that spot, Joe Hawley, Cody Wallace and John Sullivan are tops on the list.
Given the Bengals’ draft-and-develop philosophy and their frequent stubbornness they show with questionable players on the offensive line, we’re probably not looking at many moves in free agency here. They will make bids on their own two veterans and likely try to get better play out of who they already have. After allowing 41 sacks up front, it sounds like there won’t be much improvement on paper, if that’s the case. Though, with only one change in starting personnel from 2015 to 2016, there was a huge change, just in all the wrong ways.
Aside from potentially grabbing an unforeseen player in the draft if they keep Zeitler and Whitworth, the wild card of the current group remains to be Christian Westerman. The former Arizona State product was deemed as a possible second round pick, but Cincinnati was able to snag him in the fifth round last year. He’s a guard by trade, but the team experimented with him at center this offseason as well. Might he slip into a starting spot?
Right tackle is also an interesting position to watch. Ogbuehi struggled mightily in his first year as a starter, and Fisher only fared a bit better. Knowing Paul Alexander and Marvin Lewis, they’ll likely be slow to pull the plug on them this offseason, but very few positions should be immune to scrutiny after a six-win, 41-sacks allowed season. If they want to keep the status quo after a poor season on the line, the coaches better see some vast improvement from young players and hope that last year was nothing more than a blip on the radar with a new coordinator.
In terms of a high pick on a lineman being a waste, it would only fall into that category if the Bengals are able to re-sign Zeitler and Whitworth. With the aforementioned needs at defensive end, linebacker and wide receiver seeming to trump those of the offensive line, picking a lineman at No. 9, especially after using the top two picks of 2015 on linemen, seems like one that probably wouldn’t provide an immediate impact. And, after recent classes being filled with redshirt experiments, it doesn’t seem like a luxury the Bengals can afford if they want to make another playoff push in 2017.
I still see the Bengals employing a very similar lineup to what we saw last year. It’s going to take better offensive schemes and massive maturity from the youngsters to bring about an increase in the level of play next season.