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Could TE O.J. Howard be target for Bengals at No. 9?

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The logic of taking a tight end at No. 9 actually makes sense based on how the Bengals have drafted in recent years.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals have plenty of needs to address heading into the NFL Draft, but tight end isn’t one of them, at least in terms of 2017.

But the Bengals have shown they’ll address a future need one or two years early, as evidenced by taking Tyler Eifert in the 2013 draft with Jermaine Gresham still manning that spot.

We’ve seen it seemingly every time the Bengals have drafted a cornerback, as they’re typically being taken to replace an aging vet or impending free agent the following year.

That’s why we shouldn’t be surprised if the Bengals opt to address a position this year that they feel could be a need in 2018. That means tight end may very well be in play at No. 9, at least according to Bengals.com’s Geoff Hobson.

In his latest media mock draft, Hobson pegged TE O.J. Howard to Cincinnati at No. 9, and his thinking is the Alabama stud is one of the safer and better value picks at that spot.

On the surface, Howard looks like a non-Bengals pick. Too high for a tight end, they’ve already got a Pro Bowler in Tyler Eifert, and Howard’s numbers aren’t all that impressive for a Cincinnati team that loves college production.

But go below the surface and it makes sense. At No. 9, they are looking for someone that can make an immediate impact and as safe as pick as possible and Howard qualifies on both counts.

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What we do know is that many of these guys are going to be fine pros and you’re going to be happy to get them. But the 6-6, 250-pound Howard is just about the safest pick in this range of the draft. He’s considered to be NFL ready, a potential Pro Bowler who can play all three downs. He’s big, has hands that pluck, and runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash that is matchup hell in the slot.

There is talk about a running mate for Green at wide receiver. What about one for Eifert? Remember how Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett made life miserable for the Bengals last season? NFLDraftScout.com compares Howard to Jimmy Graham. You’d pay to see Eifert and Graham in the same offense, wouldn’t you?

Hobson also alludes to this being a good insurance pick for Eifert, who has been injury-prone throughout his first four NFL seasons, which doesn’t bode well for his future outlook. The Bengals do have Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah, though neither have shown they’re capable of being a No. 1 tight end for a full 16-game season.

And with Eifert set to become a free agent in 2018, the Bengals may be smart to have a more suitable replacement on the roster if he’s not re-signed. Eifert figures to command a big contract from someone and with his injury concerns, you have to wonder if the Bengals want to commit to him long-term. Though, Eifert could be franchise tagged next year to give him at least one more season in Cincinnati, should the Bengals not sign him to a long-term deal.

After all, this is a franchise that hasn’t paid a tight end big money...ever. Just as was the case with Kevin Zeitler at right guard, the Bengals have certain positions they don’t feel are worth big-money deals, even if they spent a first-round pick on said player.

That’s why Eifert not being on the team for the long-run is certainly possible, and that could mean a tight end is drafted this year much earlier than we think.

That said, I think it’s very unlikely that’s how the Bengals spend at No. 9 pick, but if Hobson is saying it, the Bengals are probably at least thinking about it.

The Bengals did attend Virginia Tech pro day to scout tight end Bucky Hodges and Clemson pro day where they were seen spending "a significant amount of time" with tight end Jordan Leggett. So, it seems tight end is very much in play for the Bengals early in this year’s draft.