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Why Bengals must go heavy on offense in 2017 draft

Making the somewhat-unpopular case for why Cincinnati needs to add offensive playmakers in this year’s draft.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Western Michigan Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

As the NFL Draft approaches, some feel they have a good idea as to where the Bengals might be looking in the first couple of rounds. But, the order in which the Bengals add players at some of those expected positions may end up becoming a big surprise.

For those of us who like to examine each of the team’s moves under a microscope, there are opinions as to how the club’s 11 draft picks should be allotted. There is the balanced approach, essentially splitting the picks over the three facets of the team, which obviously makes a lot of sense. Then there are those who feel Cincinnati should go heavy on either offense or defense this year, of which both have credence.

For just reasons, defensive end and linebacker seem to be frequent mocks to the team in the first couple of rounds. Carlos Dunlap is coming off of two straight Pro Bowls, but both he and Michael Johnson, a guy who has averaged less than five sacks per year in his eight-year career, are no longer on the front-nine of their careers. Vontaze Burfict is a star, but injuries and suspensions have caused him to miss significant time over the past couple of seasons, while the need for an athletic guy in the middle to defend the pass is also apparent.

Still, as you look at how the 2016 season played out for Cincinnati, major deficiencies were obvious. The offensive line had a massive downfall, allowing a staggering 41 sacks on the year, after their allowance of 32 the previous year, while also failing to create consistent running lanes. However, whether it was when injuries to stars at skill positions hit or before then, additional threats and more speed seem to be a necessary component for a quick bounce-back in 2017.

Why the team should go heavy on offense in this year’s NFL Draft:

The close point-differential in many losses: Of the 10 non-wins in 2016 (nine losses, one tie), seven of those games were decided by one possession. For those ardent fans looking to cling to something that gives hope for a potential playoff push for 2017, some of these coin-flip games could go their way next season. Especially when you look at games in Weeks 8-17, when the team had six losses and a tie that combined for a total of a 16-point differential.

Additionally, the team allowed 21 or fewer points in nine games last year, including seven in the final eight contests. The defense struggled early in the season, but really found its stride late, providing promise for next year.

Obviously, in those final eight contests, A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard missed a cumulative 14 games because of injury, causing the offense to get very one-dimensional. Still, shouldn’t that point to having better contingency plans and deeper rosters if they once again lose these treasured stars to injury?

Speaking of injuries...: This kind of seems to be an unfortunate theme under Marvin Lewis’ Bengals. Of course, losing Carson Palmer in 2005 and Andy Dalton in 2015 amidst MVP-like seasons destroyed Cincinnati’s playoff hopes those years, but good teams still find ways to get through the postseason when they lose other stars during the season.

Green doesn’t have the stigma of being “injury-prone”, but he has missed his share of time in recent seasons. Meanwhile, Eifert does has that label and is coming off of offseason back surgery, while Bernard is rehabbing a torn ACL he suffered in Week 11. Because of past issues and current questions, drafting players at these positions in the early rounds might be a good idea.

Already a plethora of young, fast talent on defense: The Bengals weren’t very active in free agency, but the few pre-draft moves they did make do seem to either bring improvement or depth. Kevin Minter replaces Rey Maualuga in the middle of the defense, while the team traded for former Jaguars defensive end, Chris Smith. Wallace Gilberry is towards the end of his career, but he was another rotational option who re-signed in free agency.

Additionally, Andrew Billings, William Jackson III and Marcus Hardison are all set to return from injuries for what seems like more prominent roles in 2017. While that coincides with the above-mentioned previous injury/contingency plan arguments, it does play into the younger/faster model mindset the team seems to be employing this offseason.

The lack of respect from opposing defenses: The offensive line play had a trickle-down down effect, in terms of the offensive downturn from 2015 to 2016, but opposing offenses showed a disrespect of Cincinnati’s ability to crack a big play for most of the year. The transition from Hue Jackson to Ken Zampese was a reason, as were the losses of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones and the injuries to Eifert and Green late in the year, but the need for additional threats were totally missing last year.

See below in the Week 11 game against Buffalo. While the pass was completed, you can see that a Green-less offense that had the Bills only keeping one safety back. Buffalo’s defensive backs were largely stride-for-stride with the Bengals’ receivers.

There is optimism with Tyler Boyd and Cody Core, while Brandon LaFell had a solid 2016 campaign, but even with a bounce-back year, defenses didn’t respect his ability to break open a game. However, adding someone like Corey Davis, Mike Williams, O.J. Howard or one of the many exciting options of this year’s running back crop would add an exciting dimension that could keep opposing defenses on its heels.

Future outlook of the stars on offense: Injury rehabs of Bernard and Eifert aside, there are other long-term issues for the team to consider. Green is signed through 2019, but all of a sudden, he’s entering his seventh season, while Eifert is in the last year of his rookie deal. Even though the team invested two promising picks at wide receiver last year, one of them being a second-rounder (Boyd), adding more talent can provide long-term solutions and breed much-needed competition on the roster.

Questions with potential high defensive picks in the draft: Whether we’re talking about value, injuries or character red flags, there are issues with some of the prospects linked to the Bengals—particularly at No. 9 overall. Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster is a popular mock choice, but a lingering shoulder issue combined with his being sent home from the NFL Combine for blowing up at a medical assistant leaves major questions.

While pass-rushers are a premium position, the Bengals could be facing a value dilemma. While Tennessee’s Derek Barnett is a talented youngster who could provide a defensive spark, many have him as the third or fourth-best player at his position this year, being Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, Stanford’s Solomon Thomas (depending on whether or not you look at those two as more defensive tackles or not) and Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett.

While a top-10 pick is had by a team with many glaring needs, it also points to a team getting a player who is widely-considered as the top at his position. This year, the Bengals might be able to get both value and need by grabbing an offensive player at No. 9, over an edge rusher pegged down on the talent order.