The Bengals will have 11 picks in the upcoming draft, including the number nine overall selection and two picks in every round on Day 3. Those are fine resources to help boost a team that finished out of the playoffs for the first time in six years and doesn’t usually lure free agents. The biggest question as the draft nears is what the Bengals’ highest priorities are.
On Thursday, the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Paul Dehner Jr. and Jim Owczarski said they don’t think a wide receiver in the first round "fits the puzzle of what they’ve seen from the Bengals". A true number two who can stretch the field vertically is indeed a high priority, even if the team seems unlikely to go that route when they’re on the clock on Day 1 of the draft.
Their reasoning might seem fine to many. Tyler Boyd, picked in the second round in 2016 out of Pittsburgh had 54 catches for 603 yards and one score in his rookie season. He had a productive season by the numbers and is poised to improve in year two. More playing time alongside A.J. Green could open up many more opportunities for him. Brandon LaFell just re-signed with the Bengals for two years and is coming off a strong season in which he went for 862 yards and six touchdowns on 64 catches. They came to Cincinnati in order to replace Marvin Jones Jr. and Mohamed Sanu after both of them left in free agency. The former had 930 yards and four touchdowns in 55 catches in his first year with the Lions, and the latter amassed 653 yards on 59 receptions while hitting paydirt four times for the Super Bowl runner-ups.
In terms of production both LaFell and Boyd managed to equal Jones and Sanu, but numbers often lie, or at least don’t tell the whole story. In this draft, there are two or three players who most pundits are sure will be picked in the first round. Western Michigan’s Corey Davis, Clemson’s Mike Williams and the absurdly fast John Ross from Washington are expected to be gone on Day 1. Do the Bengals need any of them and should they be picked with the No. 9 selection?
Given how much Cincinnati has invested in the position, with Green, LaFell, Boyd and fellow 2016 draft pick Cody Core, there might be a situation where even if the Bengals need a receiver, they wouldn’t want to draft one. And this is where, in my opinion, they’re wrong. Nobody has been able to reproduce what Jones brought to the table in 2015, which is speed to beat secondaries over the top and playmaking ability to get open down the field. What some fail to see is the impact of Jones on the rest of the offense. He didn’t make anyone around him better, but forced the opponents to respect the side of the field on which Green was not, thus making teams other than the Texans miserable if they tried to double-team him. Boyd and LaFell, while fine as No. 3 wide receivers, are not that guy, and Core, picked in the sixth round of the 2016 draft, isn’t the answer either (at least yet). For instance, this is what NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein said of Core in his draft profile: "not a sudden, athletic receiver and takes awhile to get into and out of his breaks. Below average acceleration. Runs rounded, sloppy routes and has issues adjusting them in space". He also averaged a little less than 12 yards per catch last year.
You could argue the offense took a step back last season because of injuries to Tyler Eifert and then to Green, and a declining offensive line, but also acknowledge opposing defenses could crowd the middle of the field and force quarterback Andy Dalton to hold the football for a little longer. One of the keys for Dalton’s huge 2015 season was a very quick release. That offense relied on finding the one-on-one matchup and exploiting it. With Green, Jones, and also Eifert, the Bengals offense was very hard to gameplan against. And this is why getting Davis in the first round could help transform Ken Zampese’s offense back into the 2015 juggernaut.
Now, after investing a high pick in Boyd last spring, of course the Bengals will be reluctant to spend their earliest pick since 2011 on another receiver. That didn’t stop them from taking a cornerback last season, but this time it’s probable they will have at least a few of their top choices available when their turn comes to draft a player. Cincinnati likely doesn’t see wide receiver as a top priority, and they could add some depth later in the draft to replace James Wright, but when you’re looking for speed on Day 3 you end up with a guy like Mario Alford. Surrounding your quarterback with weapons, especially when yours is not Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, is as key as having shooters in basketball. That’s not only because of how many yards and touchdowns they produce, but also because the defense won’t be able to guard them all.
Of course the Bengals have other needs, namely at pass rusher, and if Solomon Thomas of Stanford is available by the time they pick, he would be a no-brainer. But selecting a pass rusher with the ninth pick just because they feel like they have to get a player at that position, would be a poor excuse to pass on an elite wide receiver who could make the Bengals’ offense look like their 2015 version for years to come. The defensive end the Bengals add early has to be a stud and somebody they’re sure can contribute right away and make the defense better. That’s because in a draft deep in defensive talent, the gap between the first tier of pass rusher and the second tier might not be much, while somebody like Davis is clearly ahead of the pack.
I am not saying the Bengals should take Davis instead of a pass rusher, even if I’d love them to. I’m just arguing for Cincinnati to realize the team needs another top-notch wide receiver. Coming off a disappointing 6-9-1 season, the Bengals need to hit a homerun with this draft class if the team is to return to being contenders. With that in mind, the Bengals will probably select a tight end in Round 1 in case Eifert leaves in free agency 2018 and I’ll just cry forever.