As we are on the precipice of Super Bowl LVIII, the Cincinnati Bengals are deeply invested in all of the ways to make next year’s Big Dance. As we know, with their offseason process, this team uses free agency to address urgent roster needs while using the NFL Draft as a mix of best player available and a longer-term vision of need fulfillment.
‘Tis the season for mock drafts right now, but we’re not going there quite yet. In a recent episode of our Orange and Black Insider podcast, we talked about a handful of prospects in which the Bengals could have interest this spring.
Here are just a few preliminary looks in each position group to chat about, as we are VERY early in this process. There are some obvious ones, players whose fit may or may not be in question (but their talent isn’t) and/or a couple of under-the-radar guys. Let’s have a look.
Joe Mixon was still productive this year, putting up over 1,000 rushing yards, a 4.0 yards per carry average, and 12 total touchdowns (nine rushing, three receiving). He’s still on the right side of 30 years old (will be 28 in season), and the team doesn’t have another big back like him on the roster.
But, with one year left on his deal and having an easy out on it this offseason, if they choose to do so, Cincinnati needs to be looking forward at the position—whether it’s in 2024 or 2025. Chase Brown brought nice versatility, but Cincinnati could use another explosive, multi-use weapon in the offense.
We’ve seen what a Jahmyr Gibbs and Antonio Gibson (particularly his early years) can bring to an offense—even if on a supplemental basis. Maybe that’s an element the Bengals explore in the draft.
Jaylen Wright, Tennessee:
He’s a bit of a polarizing player, depending on where one perceives his draft value, but Wright brings sizzle. He also showed improvement in two major categories this year—yards per carry (from 6.0 to 7.4 on a similar volume of carries) and receptions (from two in 2022 to 22 in 2023).
He brings speed and a newfound receiving ability, which could benefit this offense, but doesn’t have anywhere near the size of Mixon at 5’10” and 200 pounds. Getting big yards off of basic plays and on early downs will be key for Joe Burrow and Co. in 2024, though, and Wright has the ability to do just that as a rotator in an offense.
Bucky Erving, Oregon (from Minnesota):
Like Wright, Erving isn’t a big guy (5’10”, 190), but, boy, can he make people miss. He’s averaged about 6.5 yards per carry the past two seasons, along with 2,238 combined rushing yards the past two seasons.
The biggest appeal for a team like the Bengals? The first has to be his 87 receptions for 712 yards and five scores through the air the past two seasons. The other? Missed tackles and yards-after-contact. Check out this blurb from Pro Football Focus’ Trevor Sikkema:
Irving earned back-to-back 90.0-plus rushing grades to finish his college career, with his 90.8 mark from 2023 good for the third-best mark in the Pac-12. He’s averaged at least 3.9 yards after contact per attempt and forced at least 63 missed tackles in each of the past two seasons.
What does the future hold for Tee Higgins? Most believe that the highest probability is a tag-and-play in 2024, whether that is the preferred outcome or not. Oh, and Tyler Boyd?
Cincinnati double-dipped at wideout on the third day of the draft last year, but they may opt to look for one earlier this year if they lose one or both of the aforementioned names. Fortunately, it’s a pretty deep class.
Rome Odunze, Washington
He might not be available when the Bengals are set to go on the clock at No. 18, but he’d be a great replacement, should the team and Tee Higgins part ways this offseason. Odunze is big (6’3”, 200), has a good catch radius, and will take any NFL offense to the next level.
One can see elements of the games of Higgins, Mike Evans, and others, with Odunze having better long speed than many think. While he didn’t have a touchdown in his last three games, he did have two 100-yard performances and 314 total receiving yards in that span.
Troy Franklin, Oregon
Speed is an element the Bengals’ offense needs this year, and Franklin brings that. He’s an intriguing option if Cincinnati is to hang on to Higgins, even if for the short-term, with his 17.1 yards per catch in 2023 bringing visions of Burrow tossing up deep balls to him.
He’s slight, weighing in between 170-180, but has good height at 6’2”. Cincinnati had some nice developmental moments from Andrei Iosivas and Charles Jones as rookies last year, but Franklin adds a deep-threat element that would make Cincinnati’s offense lethal.
Others: Malik Washington, Northwestern/Virgina; Brenden Rice, USC
JC Latham, Tackle, Alabama:
Putting up tape against top competition, Latham projects to be a solid starter in the NFL at right tackle. He’s absolutely massive at 6’6” and whatever he’ll weigh in at The Combine/Pro Day (350? 360?) and is young (turns 21 years old in February), providing a ton of clay to mold.
Patience may be a bit of a virtue here, but if it all comes together, he can be dominant.
Taliese Fuaga, Tackle, Oregon State:
Another mammoth of a tackle at 6’6” and 335, Fuaga has a little bit of a leg-up on Latham on most draftniks’ boards. The edge between the two resides in Fuaga’s prowess in pass protection.
Others: Graham Barton, Duke; Xavier Truss, Georgia
Tanner Hudson proved he deserves a roster spot as a pass-catcher, but he seems more like a rotational player at the position, who could be a nice third down and/or red zone option. Cincinnati should look at getting younger and far more athletic at the position overall, and there are definitely options in this year’s class to improve a group that has needed an influx of talent over the past couple of years.
Brock Bowers, Georgia:
This one is a no-brainer, it’s just a matter of if teams feel like that position is worth a top-10 pick or not. Cincinnati missed out on a couple of guys they reportedly liked last year—Dalton Kincaid and Sam LaPorta—and watched them help their respective teams to deep playoff runs.
This offense had nice contributions from a rag-tag crew last year, but a game-breaking tight end like Bowers would be a franchise-changer. The league should be taking notice of what elite tight ends can do for NFL offenses:
TE1s in the final 4:— Matt (@CoachMinich) January 26, 2024
Not exactly scientific, but makes a good case for an upgrade in Cincy
Bowers’ 26 touchdowns in the last three years have teams salivating, but he is a little slight for the position, currently reporting at around 230 pounds.
Brevyn Spann-Ford, Minnesota:
Because of his size (6’7”, 260) and potential, Spann-Ford could easily become a guy people become enamored with this year, a la Darnell Washington last spring. The numbers don’t pop off the page, but if he tests well, he’ll be a springtime darling among league circles.
One could make an easy argument that this group is the biggest position(s) of need for the Bengals this offseason. D.J. Reader is an impending free agent and is attempting to come back from a late-season quad injury, while Josh Tupou is also an impending free agent.
Cincinnati is still reeling from the loss of Larry Ogunjobi, as they need a capable rotator with B.J. Hill as a 3-tech. And, even though Myles Murphy popped off at the end of last year, Cincinnati needs more pass-rush from every spot not manned by Trey Hendrickson, with an indication being the teams facing off in the AFC Championship amassing 117 combined quarterback sacks in the regular season (60 from the Ravens, 57 by Kansas City, as opposed to Cincinnati’s 44).
Laiatu Latu, EDGE, UCLA:
Is he a 3-4 outside linebacker, or can he play a more traditional edge? This was a question with Tuli Tuipulotu last year, as the Chargers coined him the former, paving the way for a PFWA All-Rookie Team designation.
Like his PAC-12 counterpart from last year, Latu knows how to disrupt. He’s not a one-year wonder, either, putting up 23.5 sacks (13 this past season) the last two years, to go with 34 total tackles for loss in that same span.
Byron Murphy II, IDL, Texas
The 3-Tech for the Longhorns brought a lot of positive attention upon himself in Texas’ playoff run. He had five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss this last year, proving he can be a disruptive interior force.
T’Vondre Sweat, IDL, Texas
Flanking Murphy was Sweat, who is absolutely massive at 340 pounds. Cincinnati needs more run-stopping help, particularly in the AFC North, so if they end up moving on from Reader and/or Tupou, this has to be a guy on their radar.
Sweat had eight tackles for loss and two sacks last year, which are nice numbers from a nose, but a good portion of those came against some weaker competition. It also remains to be seen where teams value a guy who may only play limited downs in the NFL, but Sweat looks like a guy who could provide value to the Bengals—particularly for their division.
Jer’Zhan Newton, IDL, Illinois
Newton is one of the top interior defensive linemen in the draft, putting up consistently disruptive numbers. He’s averaged over 54 tackles the past three years, with 18 sacks and 27.5 tackles for loss in his four-year career with the Illini.
Plenty more to come!