Ryan is currently an undergraduate student at Ohio University pursuing a degree in Sport Management. He has been attending the NFL Draft in New York City since 2005 and has aspirations of a career in scouting. He is currently a writer at DraftBreakdown.com where he posts his latest mock drafts, scouting reports, and more. A self-described sports enthusiast and draft analyst, Ryan has grown up a diehard Bengals fan.
It is time to start the countdown if you haven't already. The NFL Draft is right around the corner and if you are anything like me, you have cleared the weekend of April 26-28 to watch the annual selection process in ritualistic fashion.
Evaluations have been done, grades have been given, and while athletes continue to make their rounds visiting NFL franchises, teams are beginning to put the finishing touches on their draft boards. The possibilities are endless and just three weeks from now, Cincinnati fans will be welcoming eight new Bengals. Struggling teams will have the opportunity to right the ship, while perennial contenders can continue to assert their dominance.
For Bengals fans, this year's draft is especially significant. Equipped with the 17th and 21st picks, 2012 marks the first time Cincinnati has held two first-round selections since 1998 when the Bengals chose linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons. This time around, Marvin Lewis & Company must handle the task of improving a young team coming off a surprising playoff appearance.
In the following breakdown, I illustrate several positions that could serve as focal points as well as provide an in-depth look at some of the prospects that best fit the Bengals schemes and historical tendencies. As is the case for anything in football, it all starts in the trenches.
Entering the 2012 season, the Bengals will face the challenge of moving forward without starting offensive guards Bobbie Williams and Nate Livings. Between the two of them, offensive line coach Paul Alexander has 165 starts and 677 pounds to replace. Additionally, versatile backup Mike McGlynn chose to pursue a starting job and signed with Indianapolis last month. While the play of the interior line was less than spectacular a year ago, Cincinnati has a lot of experience to replace.
Signing free agent Travelle Wharton to a three-year contract was certainly a step in the right direction for a team desperate for talent and depth in the trenches. Though he struggled a bit in early action, 2011 fourth-round pick, Clint Boling is one option across from Wharton. Another young player, Otis Hudson, is waiting patiently for an opportunity in the regular season. Judging by the attention the Bengals coaching staff has shown to interior linemen in the past few months, however, it would appear as if Cincinnati is not settled at the position.
Most years it would be unwise to consider an interior offensive lineman in the first round, but the 2012 draft class offers a few gems that could buck that trend. Stanford's David DeCastro may be the most highly regarded of the group. An ornery, mauling offensive guard, he is an ideal fit in the Bengals man-power blocking scheme. While his run blocking stands out most, DeCastro is also technically sound in pass protection, fairly athletic, and versatile enough to project to a number of positions. Another option in the opening round is Peter Konz of Wisconsin. Though he anchored the Badgers Rose Bowl teams from the center spot, Konz has the size, strength and awareness to successfully move to guard. Another physical run blocker, he shows the passion for the game that Alexander desires.
Several head coaches around the NFL have highlighted the depth of this crop of offensive linemen and it makes sense that the Bengals would cash in. Aside from the versatile Konz, another physical Badgers lineman, Kevin Zeitler, could be on Cincinnati's radar. Though he may not be the same caliber athlete as his college teammate, Zeitler is a big, thick interior lineman with a competitive spirit and the strength to make an immediate contribution to the team's rushing attack. If he is available in the second round, Lewis and the Bengals would be very tempted to pull the trigger.
Should Alexander stick true to his roots and target the biggest, most versatile linemen in the draft, expect him to lobby for Iowa State's Kelechi Osemele. In terms of raw tools and ability, the former Cyclone is among this class' more "freakish" trench players. Despite playing out of position at left tackle throughout his college career, Osemele had great success due to his massive frame, long arms, and powerful base. At the next level he may benefit from a move inside to guard where he could physically dominate opponents.
While the top-heavy nature of this class means some potential Pro Bowl players will be floating around early, there are sure to be a few potential starters available if Cincinnati opts to wait. An in-state product, Miami (Ohio)'s Brandon Brooks, opened eyes with an incredible Pro Day workout. A notable Combine snub, he put on a show in Oxford when he ran a 4.98 and displayed surprisingly light feet at a whopping 6-5, 353 pounds. Though his weight could be a concern, Brooks fits the Bengals prototype at right guard with a strong base, the strength to generate movement in the run game, a good head for the game, and the versatility to play multiple positions.
If the team is unable to find a solution during one of the first two days of the draft, it could take a flier on a player in the middle-to-late rounds to compete with Boling and Hudson. Pittsburgh's Lucas Nix may lack the functional strength the Bengals are looking for, but he is the type of big, nasty, blue-collar offensive guard that could challenge for the starting right guard spot. Wake Forest's Joe Looney is another strong run blocker with good football character. Though he may lack the size Cincinnati has become known for up front, Looney has the versatility to be an excellent reserve at either guard spot or even the center position.
Similar to the situation the team faces at offensive guard, the Bengals will be moving into 2012 without the services of veteran running back Cedric Benson. Many would agree that it was time for a change in the backfield, as offensive coordinator Jay Gruden shifts the focus to a running back-by-committee. By decreasing the workload of one bell cow back, the offense will look to maximize the various strengths of its personnel.
While Cincinnati could have easily waited to tap into a deep and talented draft class, the front office took the initiative to go out and land a proven veteran in BenJarvus Green-Ellis. While the "Law Firm" does not solve the problem at running back, he has the complete skill set (blocking, receiving, etc.) the team had lacked in past years. Increased touches are also expected for fourth-year player Bernard Scott. Coming off a down year in which he averaged only 3.4 yards per carry, this may be Scott's last chance to prove he is worthy of a significant role in Gruden's offense.
It may seem unlikely for the Bengals to invest an early round pick at the running back position after giving Green-Ellis a three year contract; however, that has not stopped the Cincinnati coaching staff (notably running backs coach Jim Anderson) from taking a long look at this draft class. One player who fits particularly well is Boise State's Doug Martin, a tremendous competitor nicknamed "Muscle Hamster" by his teammates. Though some would argue he is not the gamebreaker needed to improve the league's 26th-best rushing attack (in yards per carry), Martin possesses burst, vision and elusiveness in space.
A well-rounded back on and off the field, he has displayed soft hands out of the backfield and the willingness to block along with strong leadership traits and good work habits. In an ideal world, the Bengals could address more glaring needs and nab Martin in the second round, but for my money, I would not expect the former Broncos workhorse to make it out of the opening stanza.
While Martin appears to be the more complete option, Gruden may desire a more explosive element in his offense. Virginia Tech's David Wilson is a phenomenal athlete with electrifying speed and agility. Only two teams, ironically the Giants and Patriots, had fewer runs of 20 or more yards a season ago. Injecting home run potential to the rushing attack could be a way of keeping extra attention away from wide receiver A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham, while also opening up options in the play-action passing game. Again, landing a back of Wilson's caliber may cost the Bengals a first-round pick. While I will not say it would be an unforgiveable "reach" at 21, Cincinnati could probably move down 8-10 spots and still get its guy.
Following a terrific career with the Bearcats and an MVP performance at the Senior Bowl, Isaiah Pead is sure to be a popular name amongst fans. Before dismissing the idea as a pipe dream conjured by Cincinnati homers, consider the benefits. While he is not a big, bruising back suited for a grinding role between the tackles, Pead possesses the ability to change speeds and direction effortlessly. A slasher by nature, he displays good feet, acceleration, and the vision required to find cutback lanes at the second level. The concern, however, would be the presence of a similar back in Bernard Scott.
Another option in the second to third round range could be Oregon's LaMichael James, a decorated college player with some electrifying qualities of his own. Though his lack of size appears to be an obstacle in the physical AFC North, James's ability to hide behind his blockers and burst through small creases could be an asset.
Should the Bengals choose to wait until the final day of the draft to address the running back position, they may be able to take advantage of the bargain bin as many teams have in the past. Cyrus Gray of Texas A&M could be a nice fit as a slasher capable of making plays out of the backfield as a receiver. A favorite sleeper of mine, Utah State's Michael Smith blazed the 40 at his pro day in 4.35 seconds and possesses an impressive compact, muscular build. Once a backup to Robert Turbin, Smith has the look of a guy that could be a better pro than college player.
Cincinnati struck gold last April when it opted for Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green with the fourth overall pick. While operating with a rookie quarterback at the helm without the luxury of a full offseason, Green made Bengals history by compiling over 1,000 yards and earning a Pro Bowl bid in his first season. For a fellow rookie, offensive coordinator Gruden, the success of his young quarterback-wide receiver had to have come as an enormous relief. Moving forward, the team will turn its attention to taking some of the pressure off of its budding star.
As Lewis has come out and stated on multiple occasions, the Bengals are comfortable with the talent they have in-house. While Jordan Shipley's season-ending injury was certainly a black eye in 2011, it allowed players such as Andrew Hawkins to carve out roles. One particular player whom the coaching staff seems to be high on, Armon Binns, will likely receive the opportunity to challenge for playing time in his second year. With legal issues pending, Jerome Simpson is still on the free agent market and may wind up being an attractive option for the team as a cheap solution that has experience in the offense. Despite the presence of alternatives, wide receiver is still a position that could be addressed early on draft weekend if the value is right.
Using the 17th or 21st pick on a wide receiver would mark the third consecutive draft in which Cincinnati has selected a pass-catcher in the opening round. While this appears unlikely, there are a few that could tempt the Bengals early. Baylor's Kendall Wright is one attractive option; possessing the versatility to run routes from the vacant "X" spot or create mismatches in the slot. His ability to accelerate in-and-out of breaks allows him to create separation from any position. Although he lacks size, Wright shows the toughness and competitiveness needed to make the difficult catch in traffic.
Were the Bengals to take a more superficial approach, they may become enamored with Stephen Hill of Georgia Tech. As the star of the NFL Combine, he impressed scouts with a blend of size (6-4, 210) and speed (4.36) that qualifies as rare at any level. On the other hand, the triple-option Yellow Jackets offense limited his touches and perhaps set him back in terms of readiness. Cincinnati may need to be patient with Hill, but he is exactly the type of vertical option that could stretch opposing defenses and take some heat off Green.
Should the Bengals pass on a receiver in the first round, they are left with a deep and talented crop to choose from. Much like Hill, Appalachian State's Brian Quick is far from a finished product. As a 6-4, 220-pound former basketball player with very good body control and a huge catching radius, he never had the luxury of a position coach in college. While some remain wary of the drastic change in level of competition, Quick is a coaches dream: a clean slate with physical gifts that cannot be taught and a capacity to learn.
Mohamed Sanu of Rutgers is another that could add a new element to the Cincinnati offense. A versatile, competitive player with terrific hand-eye coordination and toughness, Sanu is not afraid to do the dirty work. Though he lacks deep speed and may struggle to create separation, he can kill defenses underneath and excels after the catch.
The amount of wide receiver talent that figures be available late on day two may influence the Bengals decision-making process. Fans need not panic if two rounds go by and Cincinnati has yet to fill the vacant spot across from Green. Several players in the third round range appear to fit Gruden's West Coast offense, including Marvin McNutt of Iowa and Juron Criner of Arizona. Though he may be another lacking the speed to consistently separate, McNutt flashes coordination, natural athleticism, and the ability to shield defenders with his body. Criner also will garner attention as a big receiver capable of stretching the field vertically and picking up yards after the catch.
Perhaps no position is as important to Cincinnati's eventual playoff success as cornerback. The Bengals did a nice job retaining their three top corners from a year ago and in 2012. Leon Hall, Nate Clements and Adam Jones will be joined by former first-round pick, Jason Allen. With Hall, the team's defensive cornerstone, returning from a torn Achilles this season, there is no such thing as being "too" well stocked in the defensive backfield.
It looks as if the Bengals will not be taking any chances with the health of their shutdown corner. Though the Bengals of old may have trusted their own personnel to pick up the slack, Mike Brown once again took the initiative to shore up the position in free agency. Allen, formerly of the Texans, fits Mike Zimmer's mold as a tall, rangy, athletic defensive back capable of playing multiple positions in the secondary. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, expect the coaching staff to keep an open mind when it comes to the draft.
With depth, experience and talent at the position already, will the Bengals bother drafting a cornerback early? Though it is hard to say for sure, Lewis has not been shy in the past about vocalizing his affinity for corners in the opening round. Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick is probably the name linked to Cincinnati most. Once thought of as a top 10 talent, character concerns have pushed him into striking range for the team in stripes. A tall, rangy corner with tremendous physicality, Kirkpatrick projects as an impact defender worthy of early consideration.
A hot name right now, Stephon Gilmore of South Carolina, also fits the Bengals profile at the position. Although his technique has been inconsistent, many feel as if Gilmore's size, physicality and athletic prowess will thrust him into the conversation at 17 or 21.
Earlier in the process, countless mock drafts pegged North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins to Cincinnati in the first round. While there are few doubts about his talent, a history of arrests will certainly hurt him on draft day. A physical, aggressive man-corner with impressive closing speed and good ball skills, Jenkins is a classic boom-or-bust pick in the second round. Louisiana Lafayette's Dwight "Bill" Bentley is another competitive corner worth consideration on day two of this month's draft. Despite the fact that he, like Jenkins, may lack the size the coaching staff covets at the position, Bentley possesses the athleticism and aggressiveness to hold his own in the slot.
If the Bengals opt to address areas of greater need early on draft weekend, several mid-to-late round options could pique their interest. Josh Norman of Coastal Carolina turned heads at East-West Shrine practices where he displayed fluid movement in coverage to pair with good size (6-0, 197.) Boston College's Donnie Fletcher is another with an intriguing combination of experience, size (6-0, 201) and straight-line speed. In the late rounds, Cincinnati could look at another small school and Combine standout: Wayne State's Jeremy Jones.
Over the past decade, no group has endured nearly as much scrutiny as the Bengals safeties. The lack of playmakers in the secondary has been a sore thumb for Cincinnati since the early 2000s, when division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore landed Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed, respectively. Finally, the 2011 season brought a glimmer of hope in former first-round pick, Reggie Nelson.
While not an All-Pro candidate, Nelson is as good as the team has had in recent memory. The next question: who will begin the year starting alongside him? Though the team likes its young players, Robert Sands and Taylor Mays, neither has proven capable of handling a significant role on defense.
If the Bengals do look to the draft to fill their void at safety, only a few prospects are worthy of early consideration. The consensus top player at the position, Alabama's Mark Barron, is sure to be on the team's radar. Although he is not the type of ballhawking coverage safety Cincinnati ideally would add, Barron is a physical, downhill player with solid awareness and range. In the second round, Notre Dame's Harrison Smith is another that could tempt the team. A smooth athlete capable of covering and defending the run, Smith projects as an immediate upgrade for Zimmer's defense.
Though Cincinnati needs immediate help at the position, Lewis may wait until the third or fourth round to add a player capable of competing for a starting job. Boise State's George Iloka (6-4, 225) may be seen as a safety/linebacker tweener. While it is rare to see a defensive back that large, his size falls right in line with the more recent Bengals acquisitions, Sands and Mays. Trumaine Johnson of Montana appears to be another that fits Zimmer's mold as a big (6-2, 204,) athletic, versatile player that could fill a number of roles in the secondary. Another intriguing option rising on draft boards, South Carolina State's Christian Thompson could be a steal on day three.
When the Bengals selected Rey Maualuga in 2009, the plan had been to groom him at the "SAM" linebacker spot until he was ready to take over the reigns in the middle. Though he has made some strides on the field, Maualuga has struggled to shake off an off-field reputation. Whether Lewis & Co. will be open to adding a potential starter is up to speculation.
If Cincinnati truly has grown impatient with Maualuga, Boston College's Luke Kuechly will be a factor into the first-round mix. A local product with exceptional football character, there is not much to dislike about the NCAA's reigning leader in tackles. Equipped with size, speed, range and rare instincts for the position, Kuechly is considered one of the safest picks in this draft class. In the second round, California's Mychal Kendricks is another that projects as an immediate starter in the NFL. While he lacks prototypical height, he makes up for his shortcomings in size with sideline-to-sideline speed, awareness and enticing potential as a blitzing inside linebacker.
Even if the Bengals choose not to pursue a potential starter in the first two rounds, they may still look to address to position later in an attempt to light a fire under Maualuga. Emmanuel Acho of Texas may lack the size and pass-rushing capabilities of his brother, Sam Acho (Cardinals), but he is a smart, blue-collar linebacker who could push the incumbent starter. Although many would scoff at the move, it would not shock me if Cincinnati took a chance on Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict in the mid-to-late rounds. He has shown flashes of greatness, but many teams will remove Burfict from their board completely due to maturity concerns and a seemingly suspect work ethic.
While the inclusion of the tight end position as a need may come as a surprise to most, consider both the lack of depth and the moves the Bengals have made in free agency since adding Gruden as their offensive coordinator. Even though an injury prevented him from playing in 2011, Bo Scaife was an established player at the position who came to Cincinnati to play a role in Gruden's West Coast offense. Bringing veteran Joel Dressen in for a visit in March serves as further evidence of the team's desire to add a second tight end.
It appears more than likely the Bengals will turn their focus to the draft to address the position. Though their early-round picks must be used to add potential starters, Cincinnati is sure to consider a tight end such as Georgia's Orson Charles as early as the third round. Once considered a potential first- or second-round pick, Charles appears to be a dynamic receiver on tape capable of holding his own as an in-line blocker.
Were the Bengals to wait until the draft's third day to target a tight end, only a couple options exist in a thin class. DeAngelo Peterson may have been under-utilized as a receiver in LSU's offense, but he possesses the natural athleticism to blossom with the right coaching. Michigan State's Brian Linthicum is another intriguing option for the team in the late rounds. He may lack the raw athleticism and explosiveness to stretch the field, but Linthicum is a decent blocker with soft hands and good coordination.
BENGALS DRAFT HISTORY FACTS
• From 1991-2002, Cincinnati drafted primarily out of the Big Ten (15). Since Lewis took over as head coach in 2003, the Bengals have drafted 20 players out of the SEC compared to the Big XII (9), Pac-10 (8), and Big Ten (8).
• Under Lewis, the Bengals have used 13 early round picks (1st-3rd) on SEC players. The next highest: 4 (Pac-10, Big Ten).
• Since taking over, Lewis has selected at least one player from the SEC in the first three rounds of every draft.
• Lewis has drafted more players from the University of Georgia (6) than any other school. Next in line: Southern California (4) and Florida (3).