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NFL Draft 2017: Mel Kiper big board favors Bengals’ defensive targets

Defensive end looks like the ideal position to upgrade with the No. 9 pick, and Mel Kiper believes two guys are worthy of that pick.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

With the first wave of free agency and the Scouting Combine behind us, ESPN’s Mel Kiper has updated his NFL Draft big board.

Kiper has consistently been high on guys who’ve been regularly mocked to the Bengals thus far, including Stanford’s Solomon Thomas. However, Kiper now has Thomas ranked so high that we may need to start assuming he’ll be off the board by pick No. 9.

3. Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford - Previous rank: 5

A third-year sophomore, Thomas has steadily risen over the past year and now he's in the mix to be a top-five pick. He put up solid numbers at the combine and showed off the explosion that I saw on tape. Thomas plays like a veteran, causing disruptions in both the running and passing games. He had eight sacks in 2016 while playing end, but at 6-3, 273 pounds, he could move inside and play tackle. The versatility is what stands out. And he has some speed -- he ran a 4.69 40, and check out this fumble return.

There’s no question that Thomas has top-10 talent. But for much of this offseason, Thomas has regularly been someone mocked to the Bengals at No. 9 or sometime afterward. Seeing him ranked this high on Kiper’s big board suggests he should be someone who goes off the board much sooner than No. 9.

If that’s the case, another elite defender who’s been mocked to the bengals often is Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster. Even after his combine mishap, his stock hasn’t dropped enough to think he wouldn’t be a great pick at No. 9.

5. Reuben Foster, ILB, Alabama - Previous rank: 3

I'm not dropping Foster too much after his bizarre ejection from the combine, and I don't see him dropping past the top 10 in the draft. He is a big-time inside linebacker who might have been Alabama's best linebacker in 2015. Yes, better than Reggie Ragland, who went in the second round to the Bills in the 2016 draft. Foster (6-0, 229) has more range, runs sideline to sideline and is a more complete player. He's a terrific blitzer too, and recorded five sacks in 2016. I expect him to follow in the footsteps of inside linebackers from Alabama who have gone in the first round, such as Rolando McClain, Dont'a Hightower and C.J. Mosley.

There’s a decent chance one or both of Thomas and Foster is on the board at No. 9, so the Bengals should have a great chance to upgrade their front seven.

However, if the Bengals want to upgrade their offense with their first pick, LSU’s Leonard Fournette is someone the Bengals are reportedly interested in, and Kiper is still high on the elite running back.

7. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU - Previous rank: 6

A 4.51 40 is a great time for a 240-pound back, but Fournette's 28.5-inch vertical turned some heads, and not in a good way. I still see plenty of explosion when I watch his games. He struggled with a gimpy ankle in 2016 and played in only seven games. Fournette has an incredible combination of speed and power that can make him look like a varsity player hanging with the JV. Mileage was a concern heading into last season, but that's not an issue now. He had a whopping 300 carries in 2015 -- for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns -- and only 129 in 2016.

Fournette would be a major upgrade at running back if he’s still on the board at No. 9, though a number of mock drafts project him to Carolina at the No. 8 spot. Even so, there’s a good chance he’s on the board here, but if either Thomas or Foster are as well, it’s probably best to upgrade the defense.

That may still be true even if Foster and Thomas are off the board. After them, Michigan’s Taco Charlton is someone who many draft experts believe to be worthy of a top-10 pick. Based on Kiper’s ranking, Charlton is worthy of the No. 9 pick.

8. Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan - Previous rank: 11

Charlton's measurements -- 6-6, 277 with 34¼ arms -- really stood out at the combine, and he tested well. He plays with good leverage for his height, has active hands and takes ideal angles when rushing the passer. Charlton can play on his feet, which means he could fit in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. He was the best defensive player on the field in Michigan's loss to Ohio State in late November, with 2.5 sacks and nine total tackles, showing off a full arsenal of pass-rushing moves. He finished the season with 9.5 sacks despite missing two games with an ankle injury.

The Bengals desperately need to upgrade their pass rush, specifically at defensive end. With the team failing to sign one in free agency thus far, Taco is looking more and more attractive for that pick.

Another defensive end to watch for at No. 9 would seemingly be Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, but Kiper isn’t too high on the Vols pass-rusher.

21. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee - Previous rank: NR

Barnett was stellar after a slow start to the 2016 season, with 13 sacks. That put him at 33 in his three years at Tennessee. Barnett (6-3, 259) is an all-around defender who beats double-teams, makes plays in the running game and gets after quarterbacks. I see him as a 4-3 defensive end in the NFL, not a 3-4 outside linebacker, but that shouldn't hurt his value.

Barnett is a monster coming off the edge and would be a great addition to the Bengals defense, but most experts think he’s more of a mid-first-round prospect. Taking a guy like that at No. 9 would be a reach, but there’s no question Barnett would still be a nice upgrade in the pass-rushing department.

While defensive end, linebacker and running back have been the most common picks for Cincinnati in mock drafts, wide receiver has gotten some love as well. Washington’s John Ross is now the No. 1 receiver on Kiper’s big board, but even he might be a stretch at No. 9.

14. John Ross, WR, Washington - Previous rank: NR

Ross is my new No. 1 receiver, but it's not just because of his combine-record 4.22 40. It's partially due to the fact that the other top receivers, Clemson's Mike Williams and Western Michigan's Corey Davis, didn't run at the combine and we don't yet have true 40 numbers for them (Davis isn't having a pro day, either). And so I feel comfortable putting Ross, who was on my Big Board during the season, in the top spot. After major knee injuries cost him most of the 2014 season and all of 2015, Ross had a sensational 2016 season with 81 catches for 1,150 yards and 17 touchdowns. Ross isn't very big -- 5-11, 188 -- but he's not a guy who has to play in the slot. He can play outside at the next level.

Even though mock drafters continue to think wide receiver is something the Bengals should address, it’s doubtful it happens in Round 1, and there’s not exactly a receiver worthy of a top 10 pick either. It’s clear the defensive prospects should be higher up on the Bengals’ big board based on the team’s needs at linebacker and defensive end, as well as the quality of prospects at those positions.

Of the above mentioned names, which do you want most for the Bengals?