When the Cincinnati Bengals went on the clock with the No. 28 pick on Thursday night, Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer and Penn State cornerback Joey Porter Jr. were both available.
The Bengals absolutely need a tight end to usher them beyond the 2023 season, as Irv Smith Jr. and Drew Sample are both going to be unrestricted free agents. The same goes for the cornerback position, as Chidobe Awuzie will be an unrestricted free agent next year, and he’s coming off a season-ending injury.
This seemed like a dream scenario for the Bengals. Most mock drafts had Porter Jr. and Mayer off the board before the Bengals were set to make their selection. When Roger Goodell announced the pick, Bengals fans were shocked, and many were upset, as the team went with Clemson Tigers edge rusher Myles Murphy instead.
And they were absolutely right to do so. Here’s why.
Eight and five. These are important numbers.
There are only eight Bengals defensive players under contract after the 2024 season. Of those eight players, there are only five who are starters. Those starters are Sam Hubbard, Germaine Pratt, Daxton Hill, Nick Scott, and Cam Taylor-Britt.
While it would be nice to be able to re-sign guys like Trey Hendrickson, Chidobe Awuzie, and DJ Reader, all of who have made major contributions to the Bengals' success over the last few seasons, Joe Burrow’s pending extension could fundamentally change the way the Bengals approach free agency.
While the championship window is certainly open this season, the team also needs to think ahead. They don’t want to win the franchise’s first Super Bowl the same way the Rams did, by sacrificing the next several seasons. The Bengals are looking for sustainable success, which means drafting replacement players, likely before they’re needed.
It’s the same thing they did last season by selecting Hill with their first-round pick. They didn’t need him in 2023 because Jessie Bates III was still the team’s free safety. Hill played in just a handful of snaps in 2023, but is now poised to be the team’s starting free safety. Had they not drafted Hill, they would have been forced to replace Bates in this year’s draft class, or they would have had to pay a lot more money to keep Bates in stripes or find an outside free agent.
The Bengals need to be smart about where they’re spending now. Burrow is likely going to be made the highest-paid player in NFL history, as he deserves to be. And with Lamar Jackson’s five-year, $260 million contract, with $185 million guaranteed, the Bengals have a massive amount of cash they have to shell out.
For Burrow, any asking price is worth the money they’ll pay, and they’ll pay it with smiles on their faces, but that means they’re going to have to tighten their belts when it comes to other positions. Edge rusher is likely one of those positions.
It would be foolish to just count on the Bengals to be able to re-sign or extend Trey Hendrickson. The same goes for Reader, Awuzie, Hilton, or any of the other free agents the Bengals have signed over the last couple of seasons, both on offense and defense. The time for the Bengals to knock their early draft picks out of the park is now here.
This draft class is deep at both tight end and cornerback. While those are two positions of need, the powers that be in the Bengals draft war room likely recognized they’ll be able to grab a corner or tight end that are capable of helping the team out immediately on Friday or possibly even on Saturday.
Bengals de facto general manager Duke Tobin said before the draft that they’d be taking the best player available when they go on the clock. Nine of 10 draft experts agree that drafting BPA is the best way to fill out a roster, especially one that is in “win now” mode and not in a rebuilding phase.
The 10th draft expert? That guy suggests drafting Jahmyr Gibbs at No. 12 overall. I’m glad the Bengals didn’t listen to that guy. That would have been no bueno.
Some other notable reasons why taking Murphy over Mayer could work out include:
- The Bengals clearly have a good thing going by taking journeyman tight ends and getting good production out of them for 1-2 years, so why spend a first-round pick on one?
- Mayer is seven months older than Murphy. Not a huge discrepancy, but notable.
- The drop-off at defensive end is steeper in this draft than tight end. Someone like Luke Musgrave, Darnell Washington, Tucker Kraft, or Sam Laporta should be there at pick 60 for Cincinnati.
- Murphy should play significant snaps, which in turn help keep Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard fresh. Mayer isn’t really doing that for Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd.
- Speaking of, how much can Mayer really do this year with Chase, Higgins, and Boyd getting most of the targets, all while competing with Irv Smith Jr. just to be on the field at tight end?
- The Bengals had the fourth-fewest sacks last year while sporting the fifth-best passing offense. Upgrading the pass rush was a must, and now that’s been accomplished with one of the best edge defenders in this year’s draft.
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