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Tuesday Trenches: Combine Craze

A new wave of NFL rookies will be scrutinized in every possible way this week at the annual NFL Combine

NFL: International Combine Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL has a preseason, regular season, and postseason, but there really is no offseason. The most popular sport in America doesn’t sleep.

As soon as the Super Bowl is over, a billion mock drafts come out and everybody sets their sites on the combine. The combine, as you know, is just a massive job interview for incoming rookies. Team representatives talk to prospects they’re interested in, players run the 40-yard dash along with a myriad of other physical tests and the incoming rookies are made available to the press.

It’s kind of an unofficial start to the upcoming league year, even though the league year doesn’t actually start until later in the spring. The combine is a testament to the NFL’s holdover football fans in America. There is basketball, spring baseball, golf, and a myriad of other sports to watch in early March, but you better believe there will be a ton of sports fans tuning in to watch... (checks notes)... athletes run in a straight line. It’s dumb, but don’t get me wrong, I will absolutely be watching.

Here are a few things to watch out for as Bengals fans.

Running backs

The Bengals technically have Joe Mixon on the roster, but he was already a potential cap casualty heading into the 2023 season, and now there are potential legal troubles too. Many believe the Bengals will cut Mixon after June 1 to save themselves over $10 million heading into the new season.

I am 100 percent against the Bengals drafting a running back in the first round ever because I believe a good offensive line can make a mediocre running back into an All-Pro player. That doesn’t mean I don’t think the Bengals could look to select a running back in day two or three of the draft, though.

Running backs are the last group, along with offensive linemen, to have on-field workouts, which will take place on Sunday, March 5. Here are a few that I have my eye on:

  • Tyjae Spears
  • Eric Gray
  • Tank Bigsby
  • Zach Evans
  • Chase Brown

Tight Ends

The Bengals aren’t short on offensive weapons, but with Hayden Hurst hitting free agency, the team doesn’t really have a starting tight end. They could possibly re-sign Hurst, or sign another free agent tight end, and grab another tight end in the middle of the draft, but they could also select a big-name tight end, of which there are a few, in the first round.

Tight ends have the potential to be game-changers. Look at what the Chiefs have in Travis Kelce and what Tom Brady had in Rob Gronkowski. A good tight end is too fast for linebackers and too big and strong for defensive backs. With the wide receivers they already have on the roster, an elite tight end would make the offense absolutely lethal, and it’s already pretty lethal as it is.

Here are some tight end prospects that will be working out Saturday, March 4.

  • Michael Mayer
  • Darnell Washington
  • Josh Whyle
  • Dalton Kincaid
  • Luke Musgrave

Pass Rushers

No team has enough players that can rush the quarterback. A Modern NFL edge rusher can be a game-changer and are absolutely among the most important players on any roster. The Bengals have an elite pass rusher in Trey Hendrickson, and he pairs nicely with the opposite defensive end, Sam Hubbard. They also have Joseph Ossai, but they could use another great edge rusher, or an outside linebacker that can consistently get to the quarterback. It’s no coincidence that the two teams who played in the Super Bowl finished the regular season with the most and second most sacks.

The Bengals may not use their first-round pick on a pass rusher, as there are a few other needs that could be addressed, but that doesn’t mean it’s out of the realm of possibility.

Here are a couple of edge rushers and a couple of linebackers that could be used primarily as a pass rusher in Lou Anarumo’s system. I’m going to exclude some of the big names like Will Anderson Jr. because the Bengals would need to trade up to get them, and that’s likely not going to happen. Defensive linemen and linebackers are the first groups to work out on the field, on Thursday, March 3.

  • Lukas Van Ness
  • Nolan Smith
  • Zach Harrison
  • Ivan Pace Jr
  • Byron Young

Offensive Tackle

The Bengals spent big money before the 2022 season on the offensive line, bringing in Alex Cappa, La’el Collins and Ted Karras, and they selected left guard Cordell Volson in the 2022 draft, and he started the entire season. The new line started off rocky, but they really came together later in the season. Unfortunately, Cappa and Collins suffered season-ending injuries at the end of the season, and their absences were really felt in the AFC Championship game.

The interior of the offensive line is pretty set, but the Bengals could look to upgrade their tackle position, especially at left tackle where Jonah Williams gave up 12 sacks.

The offensive linemen work out on Sunday with the running backs. Here are a couple the Bengals could have their eye on.

  • Dawand Jones
  • Anton Harrison
  • Blake Freeland
  • Ryan Hayes
  • Jaelyn Duncan

Here are some random thoughts on the combine

  • I thought about including defensive backs above, but with Chidobe Awuzie coming back from injury, Cam Taylor-Britt cemented in as a starter and Mike Hilton in the slot, I didn’t think it was as important as the other positions. However, an argument could absolutely be made for safety since Jessie Bates III is like as good as gone and Vonn Bell is a free agent.
  • I went to the NFL Combine in 2013. I was able to talk to Giovani Bernard and Margus Hunt before the Bengals selected them later that spring in the draft. Bernard was sitting at a table alone while bigger name prospects like Eddie Lacy had scheduled press conferences at the podiums. He was incredibly awesome, and I think I was just as nervous as he was. I was happy when he fell to Cincinnati
  • Travis Kelce also sat at a table by himself for the majority of the tight ends media day. It just goes to show that scouts really don’t know what they have in players until they actually step foot on an NFL field.
  • One reporter kept asking prospects if they would rather fight one horse-sized duck or 50 duck-sized horses. It’s obviously a completely absurd question meant to throw prospects off their game, but some of them had thoughtful answers.
  • It has to be 50 duck-sized horses, right? A horse-sized duck would be terrifying.
  • The Bengals could also select a wide receiver, especially if they part ways with Tyler Boyd before the draft, or if they feel they won’t be able to extend Tee Higgins. Don’t pay too much attention to 40 times. Bengals fans are very familiar with drafting a wide receiver early based on their 40 time. CoughJohnRossCough.

The NFL machine marches on, and it will continue to march on until fans decide they’ve had enough, but that’s not going to be happening anytime soon. Whether you’re bored by it or not, the Combine is coming. It’ll be on the NFL Network in the next few days.

Will you be watching, and if so, what players or positions will you be keeping an eye on?

Who Dey!