A few observations from this past weekend's draft along with a tip of the hat to director of player personnel Duke Tobin. The draft went so well that even the pundits had to give it mostly As.
It turned out that having the top pick in every round in this draft meant you didn't have to move around. You were already back up in the round without having to make a trade that would get you a need. And you didn't have to trade back to get value. Both things were already at the top of the rounds.
NEW WEY OPENING DAY: The first NFL strength coach, the great Kim Wood, used to say, "Hold onto your hat," or something like that when there was something big on the way.
Well, hold on to your hat for this Opening Day because there could be 12 starters that weren't in the lineup in last year's opener in Seattle. That includes seven potential changes on defense, a number they haven't reached on that side of the ball in 15 years. That means five new possible offensive starters, which includes franchise wide receiver A.J. Green and the rookie quarterback tandem of Joe Burrow and wide receiver Tee Higgins replicating what Green and quarterback Andy Dalton did when the first- and second-rounders opened the 2011 season in Cleveland.
Higgins still has to beat out John Ross, but that still puts Burrow in fast company. According to Elias, if Green and Ross both play in Burrow's debut as a starter, it marks the first time since the common draft (that's the NFL and AFL together, kids) appeared in 1967 that two wide receivers that were former top 10 picks play in the starting debut of a rookie quarterback selected No. 1 overall.
Elsewhere on offense, Jonah Williams, injured all last season, is projected to make his first NFL start at left tackle while veteran free-agent pickup Xavier Sua a' Filo is penciled in at right guard.
Some things have to fall for the Bengals to reach seven changes on defense, matching the '05 opener in Cleveland when middle linebacker Odell Thurman was the only rookie. It's going to depend how the foe lines up and what kind of scheme the Bengals are playing.
For sure, you figure the new free agents are on the field in nose tackle D.J. Reader, middle linebacker Josh Bynes, safety Vonn Bell, cornerback Trae Waynes and slot corner Mackensie Alexander. You'd have to feel the way they're talking about third-rounder Logan Wilson, the Wyoming linebacker, he's got a shot to run with Bynes and if they're playing a 3-4ish set they could start fourth-rounder Akeem Davis-Gaither on the outside.
"This has been a proud place when it comes to defense for a long, long time, and it hasn't been (great) that way the last few years," said defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. "Some of the players are getting older — whatever the reasons (may have been for that) — but part of it is (that) it's our job to evaluate talent and get younger bodies in here that can compete for spots, and who ends up starting will play itself out. Our job is to get a pool (in which) to create competition, and then the best guys will bubble up and play. We're doing that both with free agents, and the draft."
Of course, all of this is just doodling, but the numbers are going to be close. They have been younger and have had more changes. Twice under head coach Marvin Lewis (2004 and 2011) they had 13 different starters and in that '11 opener they started three rookies on offense with left guard Clint Boling joining Dalton and Green as part of seven overall changes in the offense's starting lineup.
Much has been made that this is the wrong year to make so many changes because of the postponement of the off-season program and the uncertainty of the start of the season.
"It's going to take time. That's just a part of it," Anarumo said. "I've seen it happen fairly quick with some guys, and others it takes a little bit longer. The good news is that everybody is on the same playing field. It's not like it's just us who will miss out on OTAs and rookie mini camps. The whole league is in the same boat. The learning curve for the rookies is going to be the same for everybody. The fact we'll have some new faces out there is just where we're at. We'll have to accelerate it a little on our end."
But take heart. Because of the lockout in 2011 players and coaches couldn't even talk to each other, never mind not work out. After draft weekend Green and Dalton couldn't look at a playbook together with offensive coordinator Jay Gruden until the day training camp started on July 30. And they went 9-7 and made the playoffs.
Meanwhile, with the help of Zoom, Burrow and the coaching staff have watched plenty together already and it's not even rookie minicamp.
Hold on to your hat.
BICK TEES IT UP: The first thing Bengals wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell says is "A.J. Green is going to have an unbelievable year and that's going to upgrade everybody." The second is that he'd love to have Green mentoring second-round pick Tee Higgins for at least a few years. He's gone on record long ago that Green is the best guy he's had in any room in several stops around the NFL.
The third is he believes he's got the best receiver group in the league with the addition of Higgins.
"But I always believe that," Bicknell says. "He gives you something a little different. He's long, he's fast, he's an outside guy that you can put on the other side of A.J. We've still got John Ross that can do the things he's been doing and the improvement he's been making … That's the key. Everyone staying healthy so they can do what they do best instead of having to do other things."
It just so happens that Clemson was the first of Bicknell's dozen scheduled pro days to attend. It turned out it was the only one because he was called off the road the next day because of the pandemic. They probably would have drafted Higgins anyway, but the visit helped show how highly regarded Higgins is down there.
"We met him the day before and sat and talked and he was great," says Bicknell, who also had a chance to talk to him two weeks before in a formal interview at the NFL scouting combine. "He's great to be around. He's a good person.
"He's a big kid. He's physical. Runs through contact. His body control and the ability go up and catch the ball is impressive … They've had really great success with receivers down there. The way the program is, it creates a culture and the type of person we want …. Really, it was a no brainer when he was there."
Bicknell has coached a handful of 1,000-yard for three different teams, so he knows NFL receivers. He's not comparing the 6-4, 215-pound Higgins to anyone, just his style of play.
"Just size and speed. DeAndre Hopkins, Michael Thomas. Keenan Allen. Just the way he plays," Bicknell says. "Every great receiver I've had has had one thing. They can catch. Everything else they do is unique to them. (Higgins) is able to make catches around his body that are really impressive."
The Bengals hung with that first pick in the second round to take Higgins despite getting some offers to trade back. But the guess here is that they couldn't get within picks 37 or 38. They weren't going back farther than that. And it probably means they had Higgins going in the first round.
IS THAT A 3-4? Anarumo wants to be as flexible as he can. He evolved to a hybrid 3-4 last year in his first season and they did nothing to back away from that during the draft. Davis-Gaither played 3-4 outside backer at Appalachian State and Notre Dame defensive lineman Khalid Kareem, the fifth-rounder, is a 3-4ish type of end that can rush from the edge as well as provide a little something inside.
The key for Anarumo isn't so much scheme, but versatility. That's why they love Wilson and Davis-Gaither back-to-back in rounds three and four and then getting Purdue linebacker Markus Bailey in the seventh.
"I think we've accomplished that with both guys we've taken so far. You watch Logan play on tape, and he has almost 33-inch arms and can get in and out of cuts to make plays that some guys can't," Anarumo said after the fourth round. "Certainly Akeem can do the same. Both give you that flexibility to be able to chase guys down but still be stout enough to take on and shed blocks."
The Bengals inability to find linebackers in rounds three and four during the last decade is well-documented. But with guys like Wilson and Davis-Gaither, for instance, the think they've got guys with instincts that know angles and won't miss all those tackles of the past few years.
"I think the less we can be pigeonholed into one thing, we'll be better (for it)," Anarumo said. "Certainly, we're not an outlier when it comes to, 'Hey, we've some 3-4 (scheme) guys that can do certain things.' But, as always go back to, 70 percent of the time, you're going to be in some kind of nickel defense with a four-down structure, and you want to be able to keep multiple (options open) … "
ALPHA MALES: Head coach Zac Taylor has been looking for Alpha males and he got a slew of them this past month. Guys who play with an edge and confidence and don't mind getting other guys into the mix. Former Saints safety Vonn Bell, former Ravens middle linebacker Josh Bynes and former Texas nose tackle D.J. Reader seem to qualify. And you've got two corners that trained under Mike Zimmer in Waynes and Alexander. Need we say more?
And as far as the draft class goes, that's what Burrow is all about but he's got plenty of company. The Bengals saw that type of personality from Davis-Gather at the Senior Bowl and reward him with a captaincy. Wilson played 50 games relentlessly enough to be a captain three times and Kansas tackle Hakeem Adeniji has a school-record 48 starts at both tackles as well as a management and leadership degree.
Higgins is quiet sort, but don't be fooled. He plays with an alpha male ferocity. Yes, think A.J. Green. He got more than jump-ball ability from watching his idol. This is a man that left Clemson with as many TDs as DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins with people hanging all over him.
"I think when he goes out on the field he thinks he's the best player out there and a lot of times he is," Bicknell says. "He played at Clemson and playing for a national championship every year. Nothing is too big for him and I don't see the way he plays changing at all going from college to the NFL and that's something you look for because the game is so different."
VORACIOUS VOWELS: Callahan had the line of the draft extolling Adeniji while exclaiming he loves vowels. And the Bengals went by the letter to get him.
They felt like the strength of the tackle draft was early and late and there really wasn't all that much difference. They loved the receivers, but thought they were going to run out of the really good ones by the top of the third. So they could have got a tackle early, but they would have been playing with free-agent linebackers.
They were right about getting a good tackle prospect late because they had high grades on Adeniji. High enough that they didn't think he'd get out of the fourth round. They're not sure they've had a guy like this in a while. An athletic tackle that's big enough and strong enough to play guard. In fact, that may eventually be his position. But there's plenty of time to figure that out. With Bobby Hart at right tackle and Fred Johnson looking like he can give them something at both tackles, they don't have to rush Adeniji.