Zac Taylor ushered in a new era for the Cincinnati Bengals with the franchise’s first playoff win in more than 30 years. The snake-bit days of one-and-done in the first round of the playoffs appear to be over. This team has revolutionized its approach by spending in free agency, firing maligned coaches, like Jim Turner, and even building an indoor practice facility.
Yet, the Bengals’ draft strategy is built upon a bedrock that remains undisturbed.
We must go all the way back to 2008 when the Bengals took linebacker Keith Rivers with the ninth overall pick to find a first-round pick that was not a wide receiver, tight end, defensive back, offensive lineman, or quarterback.
Since 2008, the Bengals have spent five first round picks on offensive linemen, four on defensive backs, three on wide receivers, two on tight ends, and one on Joe Burrow.
Sure, these trends could be a matter of circumstance, need, draft board rankings, etc., but we cannot ignore the fact that the Bengals continue to stick to a formula with their first round selections.
Now, there are patterns that seem to cancel out certain realities with the Bengals’ first round pick. Notably, the three wide receivers drafted since 2008 were all taken within the top 10 picks of the draft. For the 2023 draft, the Bengals are picking 28th, and it will be the ninth time they have picked in the 20s or later since 2008.
Those previous eight picks were quite consistent with the Bengals selecting three offensive linemen, three defensive backs, and two tight ends. All three of these position groups are once again areas of need coming into this draft, but we’ll look at why tight end seems like the least likely option despite there being a surplus of quality prospects in 2023.
Since drafting Tyler Eifert in the first round of the 2013 draft, the Bengals have only drafted four tight ends across all other rounds: Drew Sample in the second round in 2019, Mason Schreck in the seventh round in 2017, and in 2015 the Bengals used two picks on tight end with Tyler Kroft in the third round and C.J. Uzomah in the fifth round.
Do the Bengals still value the tight end position as highly as they once did in the early 2010s?
Looking at the sum of tight end targets over the past three seasons (2022 - 92 targets, 2021 – 83 targets, 2020 – 72 targets, according to Fantasy Pros), and considering that the Bengals are bottom 10 in targeting tight ends since drafting Burrow; it appears that tight end is not a major part of the Bengals’ roster building philosophy.
Comparing tight end usage to 2011 and 2012 when Jermaine Gresham had 92 and 94 targets respectively, and in 2013 when Gresham and Eifert had 128 between them, the Bengals’ offense is well beyond the days of seeing the position as a priority in the passing game. The rest of the Andy Dalton era saw frequent — but not overwhelming tight end usage — with all but one season from 2014-2019 seeing the sum of tight end targets break the century mark. It’s clear that one of the major differences between the Dalton and Burrow eras (besides winning big games) is the preference for targeting a tight end.
Of course, Joe Burrow has the potential to unleash the slot and seam game, but that has simply not been his preference. In 2021, his 49.4 percent targeting the slot was the second-lowest rate of any quarterback in the league, according to Football Outsiders.
Yet, as we saw in 2022 with opposing defenses deciding to double the Bengals’ outside receiving threats, the tight end became slightly more valuable in the Bengals’ offense. If Sample had not been injured so early in the season, as well as Hayden Hurst missing a few games, perhaps the target share would have been higher for 2022. That being said, Taylor’s preference for 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) will always be a limiting factor on just how many targets we can expect a group of Bengals’ tight ends to get.
Again, it’s been 10 years since the Bengals last took a tight end in the first round, and since then, they appear unmotivated to spend top-tier assets to address a position that has struggled with injuries and/or lack of talent. In an offense that primarily runs 11 personnel, it’s vital that a tight end will block as willingly as he runs routes. Unless they are completely sold on a guy being the next George Kittle or Travis Kelce, it’s unlikely they spend a first-round pick on someone that is not able to both competently block (Utah’s Dalton Kincaid) and run routes (Georgia’s Darnell Washington).
Tight end has not been valued in recent drafts, on the field, nor in the checkbook. Hayden Hurst was signed as a free agent for a measly 1-year $3.5-million contract in 2022. The Bengals are shrewd with their financial resources, but that amount of money for a starting tight end is not exactly a sign of valuing the position. It’s hard to imagine that they will buck the trend in this year’s draft and select a projected first round talent like Washington or Mayer that will also cost first round money.
Before free agency began, I expected them to look at one of the available tight ends like Foster Moreau or Irv Smith Jr. That’s exactly what they did when they decided to “lease” Smith Jr. on a 1-year $1.75 million contract for 2023. The value of this deal is incredible, and it continues a trend that the Hurst deal started.
Smith will turn 25 a few weeks before the regular season begins, and he has flashed potential with the Vikings in the passing game. If he stays injury free and can mirror the modest production of Hurst and Uzomah that would be a huge success in the Bengals’ eyes. If anything, letting Hurst walk shows that Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin and staff are comfortable with not locking down the position for the long term, and are not willing to spend the money or draft capital to do so.
Finally, I don’t think free agency will have much influence on what the Bengals decide to do with the 28th pick. Signing Orlando Brown Jr. does not take them out of the running to select another offensive tackle in the first round. We all know that a lack of offensive line talent and depth has cost the Bengals a Super Bowl and an AFC Championship game in back-to-back seasons, and considering they’ve spent first round picks on the offensive line five times since 2008, they have failed to develop those players into long-term contributors.
Right guard Kevin Zeitler is far and away the most successful pick of the bunch, and they decided against giving him a second contract, partly because Cleveland offered him an astronomical fee at the time. The other lineman picks have either been disastrous or average: Cedric Ogbuehi and Billy Price were major figures of the horrific the Bengals rolled out in the latter half of the 2010s, while Andre Smith and Jonah Williams, both talented offensive tackles out of Alabama, have ranged from mediocre to average at best.
The Bengals showed in 2022 free agency that signing tried and true offensive linemen might be the preferred strategy moving forward since the team has struggled mightily in developing starting-caliber offensive linemen besides one outlier in Cordell Volson.
Similarly, the Bengals’ approach to their secondary has proven to be much more successful via free agency than the draft. Of course, it’s slightly better than their line history with first round picks Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard, and William Jackson III all contributing at times during their careers, but none of them reached the expected potential of a first round pick. Pivotal free agent signees like Mike Hilton, Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, and Chidobe Awuzie have defined success for this decade’s Bengals defense, proving; free agency can be a much better solution than the draft.
Despite the recent success in free agency at both position groups mentioned above, look for the Bengals to go back to their formula of drafting a developmental offensive lineman or defensive back. Selecting Daxton Hill in 2022 showed once again what the Bengals value when picking in the back end of the first round, and defensive back is still a major need heading into the 2023 season.
Likewise, targeting a replacement/competition for right tackle La’el Collins in the likes of Paris Johnson Jr., Anton Harrison, or Darnell Wright could be a worthy investment. It’s clear that the front office values elite athletes with significant college production at these positions, which are most often found in the first round of the draft.
With big paydays coming for Burrow, Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati will need to shift to addressing marquee positions like offensive line and defensive back via the draft. Ultimately, this draft has more top-end tight end talent than we’ve seen in years, but Taylor’s Bengals neither value tight end on the field nor in the checkbook.