The Bengals went after defense in the first two days of the NFL Draft the way their third-round pick stalks quarterbacks.
"I'm always hunting. I look at is as a lion just hunting for his prey," said Florida defensive tackle Zachary Carter after the Bengals took him late Friday night with the 95th pick. "I've got to get to that quarterback. That's what changes games."
The AFC champions tried to change more games by changing their approach just a bit when it comes to defense.
When director of player personnel Duke Tobin traded up three spots in the second round earlier Friday to secure Nebraska cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt with the 60th pick, it marked the earliest they had traded up in a round since the Bengals traded their first- and second-round picks in 1995 for the overall No. 1 pick.
And when they took Carter and his 17 career sacks in 41 games, it marked the first time in 24 years they had taken defense in the first three rounds. After addressing their offensive line last month by signing three starters in free agency, the Bengals reversed the trend of the Zac Taylor Era that saw them take offense during the first two rounds of each of the last three drafts.
"And we drafted (three) guys last year," Taylor said of his offensive line. "That Year 2 is a good year for them to take that next jump. They know what's expected of them, coming through a year now in the system, and they get a chance to go through an offseason and know the expectations. We expect to see those guys take the next step here in training camp and in the offseason, and really compete. That doesn't mean we are totally out of the market. We've got four rounds left in the draft. These are the first three picks. But certainly, the offense side of the ball is what we spent more time addressing in free agency this year, and defense has been the draft."
The Bengals' fears of getting their top players and needs picked over in the second round and a short list of attractive interior pass rushers crystalized Friday night.
When six defensive ends/edgers and four cornerbacks flew off the board as the Bengals loomed at No. 63, Taylor-Britt looked to be one of the few cornerbacks left they thought had the potential of eventually starting. Such a glare off the draft board spawned the trade that cost them a mere sixth-rounder.
"That was somebody we identified we wanted, and we didn't want to risk it there with maybe a team or two in front of us that could take him," Taylor said. "Or someone could jump in front of us and take him. I felt like we needed to do that."
The themes that began with Thursday night's selection of Michigan safety Dax Hill in the first round continued through to the drafting of Carter. Depth for a Super Bowl defense and versatility to face a league that has seen a record drafting of wide receivers the last two days.
"One more time, we'll use the word versatility," said defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo after taking Carter. "He's got some inside things, and some defensive end stuff. He has moved around. I think (he had) 17-plus sacks in the SEC over the course of his career, so he has shown a knack to rush the passer at the highest level. Again, he just brings us that flexibility I like to have, because we like moving guys around some."
With no clarity on three technique Larry Ogunjobi's broken ankle, the Bengals knew they had to find a backup inside pass rusher to B.J. Hill. The problem is this draft didn't have a lot of options at that spot and they were about empty at 95.
While Carter was surprised the Bengals didn't deal with him much before the draft and he thought he was headed to Buffalo or San Francisco, his unique versatility had been on their radar since they had a formal 18-minute interview with him at last month's NFL scouting combine.
"He's been in the conversation all day," Taylor said. "I think for him to be where we got him, we're pleased with that, because we've talked about him, really, over the last couple of weeks. Spent a lot of time on him. We feel really good about him."
The knock on the 6-4, 282-pound Carter is that he's a "tweener." Not big enough to play tackle and too big to play the edge. The Bengals are going to see if he needs to bulk up near 300 pounds to go inside, or if he can hold up in there before trying him on the edge. Just like they're going to see where Dax Hill is the most comfortable. The luxury of Super Bowl starters. Anarumo is going to put Carter inside at first and that's where Carter thinks his size causes problems.
"I think I'm a mismatch on guards," Carter said. "I feel like my quickness inside and my first step separate me. I feel like that gives guards trouble inside."
The arrival of Carter really tightens the numbers game in the defensive line room. There are the four starters, backup nose tackle Josh Tupou, last year's fourth-rounder Tyler Shelvin and now Carter. That gives them seven and plus there are backup edgers Cam Sample, Joseph Ossai and Wyatt Hubert and they usually keep ten.
"I watched that whole rise to the Super Bowl," Carter said. "I love that defense and how they play. I can't wait to play with these guys. They play with a lot of fire and energy … The one I love the most is Trey Hendrickson. I feel like he's very underrated. He's a great player, but I feel like he doesn't get enough love."
The Bengals are giving the defense plenty of love. For a rookie like Carter, it's hard to believe in a matter of a phone call he's on a Super Bowl team.
"It's crazy, honestly, to go from being in a college locker room to now being in the NFL and being with guys you played against," Carter said. "I'm teammates with Joe Burrow. I feel like it's an honor, man. He's a good dude. I look up to these guys."
Check out the college action from Cincinnati Bengals third round pick, DT Zach Carter, Florida.