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NFL Mock Draft 2017: Mel Kiper gives Bengals an impact linebacker

It’s becoming clear that this is a thin class of linebackers, so the Bengals may want to grab their guy at No. 9 if the team wants to ensure it gets an impact linebacker in 2017.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Media Day John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to the NFL Draft, sometimes a big dropoff between players can help a team to make a decision when it comes to what position or player to draft.

This is a shaping up to be a draft class that has a thin group of 4-3 linebackers capable of making an instant impact in 2017. If the Bengals want to ensure they land a linebacker capable of upgrading the defense from Day 1, the team’s first round pick might be coming into focus.

Alabama’s Reuben Foster has been a popular target for the Bengals in Round 1, and that’s who Mel Kiper has Cincinnati grabbing in his latest mock draft.

9. Cincinnati Bengals, 6-9-1 - Reuben Foster, ILB, Alabama

Age is starting to catch up to the Bengals in spots on defense, and speed at linebacker has been an issue for a couple of years. At about 240 pounds, Foster isn't a lightweight at linebacker but has the range of a speedy hybrid type. He can fly to the sidelines, and he's an explosive tackler. The Bengals get younger at linebacker and an immediate starter.

You know by now that Foster is a truly elite prospect who the Bengals should strongly consider at No. 9. That’s why he’s been such a popular mock draft target this offseason. He’s not just an elite player who could easily be the best player available when Cincinnati is on the clock, but he also fills a big need in a linebacking unit that needs another impact player.

One thing I found interesting about Kiper’s latest mock was the number of defensive ends going high vs the lack of true 4-3 linebackers. Here’s a look at the top 15 picks of Kiper’s latest mock:

1. Cleveland Browns, 1-15 - Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M

2. San Francisco 49ers, 2-14 - Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina*

3. Chicago Bears, 3-13 - Jonathan Allen, DL, Alabama

4. Jacksonville Jaguars, 3-13 - Jamal Adams, S, LSU*

5. Tennessee Titans, 9-7 (from Rams) - Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State**

6. New York Jets, 5-11 - Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU*

7. Los Angeles Chargers, 5-11 - Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State**

8. Carolina Panthers, 6-10 - Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan

9. Cincinnati Bengals, 6-9-1 - Reuben Foster, ILB, Alabama

10. Buffalo Bills, 7-9 - Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson*

11. New Orleans Saints, 7-9 - Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford**

12. Cleveland Browns, 1-15 (from Eagles) - Tre'Davious White, CB, LSU

13. Arizona Cardinals, 7-8-1 - Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida

14. Philadelphia Eagles, 7-9 (from Vikings) - Mike Williams, WR, Clemson*

15. Indianapolis Colts, 8-8 - Takkarist McKinley, DE/OLB, UCLA

As you can see, there are several quality defensive ends going high, but just two true linebackers made the top 15 picks. This draft class’ defensive end depth is viewed as a deep group that should allow a solid pass-rusher to fall to Cincinnati in Round 2.

But the linebacker depth is not as great, as evidenced by CBS Sports’ draft rankings, which have six ends getting first-round grades, while Foster is the only middle linebacker with a first-round grade.

Sure, drafting a guy like Stanford’s Solomon Thomas or Tennessee’s Derek Barnett would be a great move to upgrade this defense’s lacking pass rush, but there isn’t a big dropoff between that duo and guys like Florida State’s DeMarcus Walker, Missouri’s Charles Harris, or Auburn’s Carl Lawson. Those later three guys may very well be on the board still when the Bengals are on the clock in Round 2, which should keep them from feeling forced to take an end at No. 9.

Linebacker is a different story, especially at middle linebacker. The dropoff between Foster and guys like Northwestern’s Anthony Walker Jr. and LSU’s Kendell Beckwith is much steeper, and those guys aren’t good enough to feel confident they’ll unseat Vincent Rey or Nick Vigil for a starting spot.

If the Bengals are going to draft a linebacker, they need to take a guy who they’re confident is an upgrade, and Foster is that. I would be much happier with a 1-2 punch of Foster and DeMarcus Walker in the first two rounds than a duo like Thomas and Anthony Walker Jr in rounds one and two respectively.