How often do you see a team pick at the same spot in each round of the NFL Draft and never once think to yourself: “Man, why did they pick that guy?”
It kind of felt that way when the Cincinnati Bengals wrapped up their draft yesterday. Sure, they maybe didn’t pick the consensus best player at the position they drafted, but not one selection stands out as a clear miss from an evaluation standpoint. No Drew Sample. No Billy Price. No Cedric Ogbuehi.
The draft isn’t about filling all your remaining needs. If you consistently approach it as a vehicle to fill your roster with as much talent as possible, you’ll find yourself needing certain positions less and less if you complement it properly via free agency.
In his second offseason, Zac Taylor’s Bengals looked like a team who followed that methodology this spring, and it showed this week. Let’s go through each pick and grade how the Bengals did.
Round 1 (1) Joe Burrow, QB, LSU
Round 2 (33) Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson
The philosophy of this selection was fantastic. It’s always smart to invest in a player that will directly help your franchise quarterback right after you drafted him.
The Bengals need long-term stability at the receiver position and the 21-year old Higgins can bring just that. As a bonus, it would’ve been a crime not invest an early pick at receiver in a year where the position had this strong of a class. Higgins’ play style matches well with Burrow and there was a clear connection made between him and the coaching staff. He’ll be a menace on back shoulder throws and can provide the offense the verticality that it loses whenever A.J. Green and/or John Ross III are not playing.
Not everything about Higgins matches the hype, though. He didn’t test particularly well for his size and while his age-adjusted production was solid, his best single season at Clemson in terms of passing yardage market share was relatively average for this class. Guys who produce around that level typically need to have some athletic trait to boast in order to become a top receiver.
With that said, you can’t ignore his already existing traits, his potential for athletic growth, and the areas where he wins matches with Burrow to a tee. That’s why we’re confident in Higgins reaching his ceiling as a quality starter.
Round 3 (65) Logan Wilson, LB, Clemson
Probability is based on independent scenarios. If you flip a coin five times and it lands on tails each time, your odds of it landing on heads the next time isn’t any greater. It’s always 50/50.
The Bengals selecting a third-round linebacker for the fifth time in six years fits in the same logic.
After missing on the likes of P.J. Dawson, Nick Vigil and Malik Jefferson, the odds of Wilson (and Germaine Pratt for that matter) succeeding don’t get a bump based on past misfortunes. It’s completely reliant on whether or not Wilson is a good prospect, which he is, thankfully. He’s a cerebral second-level defender against both the run and the pass, and he’s got all-around above average athleticism to go with his prototypical size.
That sounds like a solid player, so why did he last until the third round? Older players from weaker programs are statistically unlikely to become high-quality players at the next level. Wilson was productive during his best season at Wyoming, but not to the extent where he countered out his age and the level of competition he faced. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a starter, which seems to be a fair expectation based on all the things he does well.
Round 4 (107) Akeem Davis-Gaither, LB, Appalachian State
Some prospects are just meant to end up with the team that drafted them. You can make this argument for Higgins, and you can definitely make it for Davis-Gaither.
Throughout the offseason we’ve heard the Bengals express clear desire in finding a linebacker/edge hybrid who can act as a wildcard in the box. Not only is Davis-Gaither (who played more snaps as an edge defender than as a true linebacker last year) exactly that, but he’s the only one in this class that was productive and proficient in both roles in college.
There’s hardly any objective concerns with ADG; he oozes athleticism and plays with an obvious understanding of his skillset and instincts. Those players just translate. The only issues here are the concerning injuries he’s recovering from, which are why he lasted this long. The potential reward is worth the obvious risk.
Round 5 (147) Khalid Kareem, ED, Notre Dame
After this pick, it was clear that the Bengals were staying true to their board. Kareem was slated to picked sometime late Friday night or early Saturday afternoon, but made it through the fourth round without finding a home. He was selected 80 picks after his Notre Dame running mate Julian Okwara was drafted by the Detroit Lions, and you could make the argument that Kareem was the better player for the Fighting Irish.
Kareem has above average production in the three most predictive categories (solo tackle, sack, and tackle for loss market share) and possesses ideal length, hands, and the ability to use those hands. He’s also still 21 years old for two more days. His athleticism is the biggest question mark on his profile, and while he didn’t test due to an injured shoulder, he probably wasn’t going to turn any heads in Indianapolis anyways.
The top of the fifth round is ideal for a player like Kareem, who can carve out an unspectacular, yet respectable, career with the Bengals. The lack of top-tier burst and bend is what will keep him from becoming great, though.
Round 6 (180) Hakeem Adeniji, OL, Kansas
The Bengals waited a long time to find an offensive lineman they liked in this class, but Adeniji is the type you want to land in the later half of the third day. The reason? Raw athleticism. Adeniji is one of the most explosive blockers to enter the NFL this year. That shows up on down blocks and getting to linebackers as a backside blocker in zone runs.
You can match the performance in certain combine drills to how a player handles specific scenarios on the field. For example, while Adeniji’s 34” vertical jump and 115” broad jump indicate he’s quick to get up field and out of his stance, his 8.32 3-cone is damning evidence that he has minimal ankle flexion to properly anchor against power. In case you were wondering, that shows up on film. A lot.
Still, Adeniji is a smart player who started for four years, and had the same number of offensive line coaches as well. That could’ve only hurt his development and may explain the inconsistencies in his tape. The Bengals see him as a guard/tackle type, but he is better suited to stay inside. He was a worthy risk at a position where the Bengals need to eventually hit big.
Round 7 (215) Markus Bailey, LB, Purdue
If there’s a talented player still available past the 200th pick in the draft because he suffered multiple serious injuries, the Bengals have become the team to take on the risk. Last year they did it with running back Rodney Anderson, and they did it again with Bailey this year.
Two ACL tears in each knee four years apart is why Bailey was still on the board as the seventh round began. Had he declared for the 2019 draft, he could’ve been a high-round pick, but a return to West Lafayette saw a return to the operating table. His coverage skills and productivity throughout his career make him a seventh-round pick you can reasonably expect to contribute in meaningful ways down the road...
so long as he stays healthy.
Overall Grade: A-
Does it warrant an A? Maybe. It seems like that would require counting on some luck in the injury department, and that’s never a wise place to put faith in.
The theme of this draft is so obviously leadership. The only non-captain here is the only underclassman in Higgins, but you figure he hopes to be the kind of leader his idol A.J. Green has become in the future. Higgins and Kareem are also the only two that won’t be 23 years old sometime this season, so if you’re going to sacrifice youth and long-term potential, you better compensate with quality character. That’s what allows full potential to be reached.
Ultimately, it may not matter how well the majority of this draft class pans out provided that Burrow becomes the answer they believe he is at quarterback. No one will come close to being as valuable as he’ll be. It won’t matter that they ignored offensive line for the first five rounds and took multiple chances on worrisome injuries.
Anything positive that they get along with Burrow being as good as advertised is a plus, and we’re confident they’ll get plenty of added positives from this class.