Upgrading the Bengals’ pass rush should be at or near the top of the team’s biggest priorities in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Since the team rarely dips into free agency to address big needs, the draft is Cincinnati's best hope of finding another impact pass-rusher to pair with Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, two players among the best at rushing the passer from their respective positions.
That’s why defensive end has been a popular projection for the Bengals with the No. 9 overall pick in the Draft. That’s the case with SB Nation’s latest mock draft. They have Stanford Cardinal star Solomon Thomas being the pick:
9. Cincinnati Bengals: Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford
Thomas is a player who’s stock rose slowly throughout the season before exploding in Stanford’s bowl game. He’s an effective power rusher who can be lined up outside and inside, and would give the Bengals a sack threat opposite Carlos Dunlap.
Thomas is becoming a popular pick to the Bengals at this spot, and it’s hard to argue with it. He checks off nearly every requirement the Bengals seemingly demand of their defensive ends.
Dating back to 1996, 10 of the last 12 defensive ends Cincinnati has drafted came from a school now in a Power 5 conference. Thomas is only 6’3”, and the Bengals typically like their ends closer to 6’6”, but he’s already 275 pounds and plays like a bigger end.
But most importantly, Thomas was productive against the run and pass. Most of the Bengals’ ends are required to be good against both, and not just act as one-trick ponies.
However, because Thomas played in Stanford’s 3-4 defense, there’s skepticism as to how well he’ll fit with an NFL 4-3 defense. He’s clearly an end, but can he play that at a high level in the same way he did as a 3-4 end in college?
In this same mock, guys like Clemson receiver Mike Williams, Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster, and Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett are still on the board when Cincinnati picks Thomas.
I would easily take Foster over Thomas, especially if Rey Maualuga is cut this offseason (please, let it be). Even Williams looks like more of a sure thing after the way he dominated everyone, Alabama included, this past season.
In terms of win-now and instant-impact guys, I’d rank Williams and Foster ahead of Thomas, but in the long term, I can see the case being made for Thomas having as good, if not a better career.
The Bengals tend to side with the latter when drafting guys, so maybe Thomas will end up being the pick.