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NFL Draft 2017: 5 Bengals targets among PFF’s top 32 prospects

PFF is not high on popular Bengals mock pick Solomon Thomas, but the organization is high on some other defenders — and receivers — who should be in play for the ninth overall pick.

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NCAA Football: UCLA at Stanford Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As much suffering as Bengals fans had to endure watching their team lose close game after close game in 2016, all of that pain did earn Cincinnati a a premium pick in this year’s NFL Draft.

Currently set to pick at No. 9 overall, this will be the highest pick Cincinnati has sported since taking A.J. Green with the No. 4 selection in the 2011 Draft. If the Bengals can land a guy even somewhat close to Green’s caliber of play, we should see a quick turnaround in terms of record in 2017.

Pro Football Focus just put out their latest ranking of the top 32 prospects in this Draft, and it includes a host of quality defenders that the Bengals should strongly consider.

There’s no question defensive end is among the most immediate needs for the Bengals, and this is a great draft for pass rushers. PFF’s top two guys are Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett and Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, elite pass-rushers who have little to no chance of falling to No. 9.

However, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett isn’t far behind them as a prospect. PFF has Barnett ranked No. 3 on its big board.

3. Derek Barnett, Edge, Tennessee

It’s an SEC 1-2-3 at the top of this draft class, with Barnett pushing Myles Garrett close for the nation’s top edge defender in each of the past two seasons. His 62 total pressures, including 12 sacks and 18 hits, from the defensive end position give him a pass-rushing productivity rating of 14.9, good for the sixth-best mark at the position in college this year, while he has been a solid run defender in each of the past three seasons too.

This past season, Barnett recorded 13 sacks while breaking Reggie White’s school sack record (totaled 33 while at Tennessee; previous mark was 32). He finished the year with 19 tackles for loss, an interception, 12 hurries and three pass breakups.

The 6’3”, 265-pound pass-rusher will need to bulk up a little for 4-3 teams like the Bengals to take him, but he’s more than capable of playing on the end in the NFL.

While Barnett seems to be the better prospect, it's Stanford's Solomon Thomas who has been the popular mock selection for the Bengals thus far.

However, PFF doesn't seem to think Thomas is worthy of a top-10 selection. It actually has him ranked down at No. 28.

28. Solomon Thomas, Edge, Stanford

Thomas is one of the better and more versatile defensive linemen in the country. The smart and talented Thomas can play a variety of different positions along the defensive line and is a devastating run-stopper who can also rush the passer. Thomas is one of the elite run defenders in the nation and his 11.0 run-stop percentage ranks No. 5 among Power-5 defensive tackles. Thomas’s pass-rushing productivity rating of 8.7 also ranks No. 5 among Power-5 defensive tackles.

I personally like Barnett over Thomas, but I also think Thomas is closer to being one of the 10 best players in this draft than being a borderline Round 1 prospect, so I'd be happy with him at No. 9.

If the Bengals end up going in another direction, one guy who’s been mocked to them early on is Clemson receiver Mike Williams, who PPF has ranked No. 5 overall.

5. Mike Williams, WR, Clemson

Putting on a show down the stretch is never bad for draft stock, and that’s just what Mike Williams did in the College Football Playoff. The 6-foot-4 receiver has the big body to win in the short game as a possession receiver but also the body control and ball skills to win in contested situations downfield. That versatility has moved him to the No. 1 spot among receivers as he can succeed with different styles of quarterback and in various schemes, though a signal-caller who is willing to let him make plays down the field will help Williams to maximize his potential.

As a redshirt junior, Williams caught 98 passes for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2016. At 6-3 and 225 pounds, he’s exactly what you want your No. 1 receiver to be. Even if you’re a team like the Bengals with A.J. Green, it’s hard to pass on a talent like Williams’, who would help Green form one of, if not he best 1-2 receiver combos in the NFL.

But Williams isn’t the only receiver worthy of a top-10 pick. Don’t sleep on Western Michigan’s Corey Davis being the Bengals’ pick, and PFF ranks him No. 6.

6. Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan

We’ve had Davis in the top 10 for a while now as his route-running is exceptional and he pairs that with strong size, hands and ball skills. Davis was one of our top-graded receivers for three straight years, averaging an exceptional 8.1 YAC per reception as he showed the burst and shiftiness to turn short gains into explosive plays. Davis is also capable of making the spectacular catch while also making plays up and over cornerbacks, and he projects as a high-volume efficient receiver at the next level.

This past season, Davis racked up 97 catches for 1,500 yards (15.9 avg.) and 19 scores. He also became the all-time FBS leader in receiving yards, and he’s worthy of a pick this high by a team in need of more playmakers.

However, Davis has an ankle injury that will likely sideline him for the Scouting Combine, which could cause a small hit to his draft stock. Still, given the Bengals’ willingness to spend high draft picks on guys overcoming injuries, I doubt this would be the difference in Davis being the team’s first pick if they like him enough.

If linebacker is what the Bengals address, one such prospect who’s been mocked to Cincinnati often is Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster, who PFF ranks No. 8.

8. Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama

Foster elevated his game this season with a dominant performance that saw him finish with the top grades among the nation’s linebackers. He moves extremely well, mirroring running backs in the run game and in short coverage while also using that agility to slip blocks and make plays on the ball carrier. Not only can he move, but Foster also plays with great power, taking on and blowing up blockers while making runners pay when he closes in on the tackle. In coverage, Foster can have some issues moving backwards, but he’s fantastic with the ball in front of him, and he also adds an explosive dimension as a rusher. Foster will add a versatile, three-down presence to a defense at a time when the value of a three-down linebacker may be higher than ever.

Foster is a beast in the middle, and he’d be a great backer to pair with Vontaze Burfict to make the Cincinnati defense elite again. Even with Rey Maualuga, Nick Vigil, Vincent Rey, P.J. Dawson, Trevor Roach and Marquis Flowers under contract, Foster would easily be an upgrade over all of them, not to mention the fact Cincinnati should cut Maualuga this offseason.

I think there’s a good chance whoever the Bengals pick here will come from the above mentioned names. Most, if not all of them should be on the board at No. 9, and all four would make an instant impact on a team that needs to find instant-impact rookies in this year’s draft.