*They didn't think he'd be there, but tight end Tyler Eifert was the best player on the Bengals' board when they picked at No. 21 last year. Will the Bengals get another slide at No. 24? *
One of the murmurs this week is that the Bengals didn't improve enough over the offseason to translate an AFC North title into a Super Bowl winner.
Never mind that delving into free agency only would have prevented them from keeping the core of a playoff team together, or that the players they've lost in free agency have been replaced by proven players in their own system, or that they'll get at least a third (Michael Johnson?) and fourth-round pick (Geno Atkins?) in 2015 as compensation by sitting out lucrative free agency, or that the numbers suggest the offense is going to get a boost from a top 10 rushing coordinator in Hue Jackson.
A good draft on May 8-10 would take care of that kind of criticism because that means getting three starters or regulars at some point this season that would be an upgrade. Certainly even the mavens of metrics would conclude you've got a better percentage at getting more out of your own draft pick than paying a free agent.
That has certainly been the case for the Bengals since '09 and with running back Giovani Bernard and tight end Tyler Eifert carrying the banner for '13, left end Margus Hunt, guard Tanner Hawkinson, and wide receiver Cobi Hamilton have a good shot to join the club and give that class three starters and/or regulars.
So with the thinking this draft is stocked from picks 20 to 70 with guys that can become starters and regulars, and from 71 to 100 with solid backups that might become more, if there's ever a time to predict a trade down for the Bengals at No. 24, this draft is it. They've certainly been known to do it when picking in the second half of the first round, going all the way back to 1989 when they traded out of the first round to get running back Eric Ball at the top of the second.
They did it as early as two years ago when they went from 21 to 27 and still got the offensive lineman they wanted in right guard Kevin Zeitler. They did it in 2004 when they went from No. 17 to No. 24 in the Deltha O'Neal trade and picked up 11-year staple Robert Geathers with the 117th pick from Denver. Then they went down to No. 26 in a swap with St. Louis that netted them the running back they targeted, Michigan's Chris Perry, as well as the 123rd pick, which turned into Stacy Andrews, a right tackle they designated their franchise player in a 2008 season that saw him tear his ACL in the next-to-last game of the year.
With a week left until next Thursday night's first round, the Bengals figure to have already set their board by both positions and overall rank. The next few days encompass discussions about potential trades and possible debates among players at No. 24.
The big topic for them may be Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. By all accounts, he's going to be there and they have to determine how big of a slide it is and if the value is worth it offset against the buzz and distractions it would cause in the midst of the Andy Dalton negotiations in which they've said Dalton is their guy, come hell or Mel Kiper Jr.
Going by this board, at No. 24 the Bengals are in prime position to lure one of those teams at the top of the draft looking for a quarterback that believes it can get him later. Say a Houston or Jacksonville.
But the only way the Bengals would trade down is if they knew they could still get one of the players they grade highly. So let's see if we can whittle down the universe of players they'll be looking at after the first 23 picks in the last installment of the 2014 Bengals.com Media Mock Draft. We've selected a panel of scribes known for the expertise on the teams they cover and we'd like to send them a signed A.J. Green/Andy Dalton/Giovani Bernard football, but we won't.
1. TEXANS - DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina; John McClain, The Houston Chronicle
It's still early in draft time, but it looks like they're going to take Clowney over Johnny Football in a move that may insure J.J. Watt's Hall-of-Fame induction. Houston could still trade out of there if they get an overwhelming offer and then maybe that's how they'll get their quarterback.
But McClain doesn't gauge a whole lot of urgency about a quarterback, which may be because they've got three veterans. And since Texans GM Rick Smith doesn't have a history of trading up, McClain doesn't think they'll try to get the quarterback by dealing back up into the first round.
2. RAMS – T Jake Matthews, Texas A&M; Jim Thomas, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- The Rams will be all over Clowney if the Texans aren't and they may try to trade out if he's not there. But Matthews makes a lot of sense with left tackle Jake Long coming off late season ACL surgery and quarterback Sam Bradford one shot closer to getting shell-shocked out of the league. St. Louis seems to view Matthews as the most complete of the tackles. While Greg Robinson has to work on pass protection and Taylor Lewan has been known to get beat inside, Matthews has terrific and durable DNA with uncles and cousins all over profootballreference.com and it doesn't hurt that Rams head coach Jeff Fisher coached Jake's father Bruce in Tennessee. Sammy Watkins doesn't seem to be a fit after they've taken four wide receivers in the first two rounds of the last two drafts.
3. JAGUARS – WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson; Vito Stellino, Florida Times-Union.
The one thing we seem to know about the Jags is they don't like the quarterbacks well enough to take this high. So it looks likes it has turned into a debate between Watkins and Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack and offense puts people in the seats. But Jacksonville looks more than happy to make a trade with Atlanta or Detroit. General Manager Dave Caldwell will certainly listen. He reportedly mulled getting out of No. 33 in the second round last year, but decided to stay put.
Watkins must be good. He's only 6 feet, but no one has brought up the specter of 5-11 Peter Warrick at No. 4 in 2000. Probably because he runs a 4.39-second 40-yard dash.
4. BROWNS - QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M; Tony Grossi, ESPNCleveland.com
You know how new Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said he might like to blitz a little more than Mike Zimmer? He may want to dial up some new ones designed for an acrobat out of the pocket.
Grossi thinks in this scenario for the Browns it would come down to Manziel, Mack or Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles, and he's not too sure how they'd lean. They already have quarterback Brian Hoyer in place for this year, but they can't put off getting one for the future and they've made it clear they're looking for a guy that can throw on the run. They looked at two that can in Vince Young and Tyler Thigpen, and Bortles can do it, too. But Manziel is the master. Or until a blitzing backer hits him in mid pirouette and breaks him in two. Is he Fran Tarkenton or Doug Flutie or Tim Tebow?
5. RAIDERS – OLB Khalil Mack, Buffalo; John Clayton, ESPN
From his old AFC West days the Seattle-based Clayton has always had a good read on the Raiders, if there is such a thing. If they can't get Watkins then he thinks it's going to be the young playmaker at outside linebacker that owner Mark Davis likes. They need a receiver, yes. But since 2011 they have been 29th, 18th, and 22nd on defense.
6. FALCONS - LT Greg Robinson, Auburn; D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Maybe some good Draft Day drama. It's a deep draft where you can stockpile some players, but Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff has traded up three times in the first round to get tackle Sam Baker in his first draft in '08, wide receiver Julio Jones in 2011, and cornerback Desmond Trufant last year. If not, the Robinson pick keeps in line with the offseason theme of protecting quarterback Matt Ryan.
7. BUCCANEERS - WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M; Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune
As Cummings says, the $64 million question is just how much do the Bucs want a quarterback? They've been coy, he says. They seem to like Mike Glennon, but Lovie Smith has made soon-to-be 35-year-old Josh McCown the starter. They could be a wild card here with Bortles sitting there, but logic is they need a lot more than a QB and Evans gives them a head start in getting whoever the QB is some weapons.
8. VIKINGS – QB Blake Bortles, Central Florida; Ben Goessling, ESPN.com
So the Mike Zimmer Era starts the same way the Marvin Lewis Era began. With a QB. The Vikes aren't handing out any clues and they could go defense here with Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley impressing Zimmer. But they seem to like Bortles the best out of the top three quarterbacks.
9. BILLS – TE Eric Ebron, North Carolina; Tim Graham, The Buffalo News
The thinking is it's a tackle if Robinson or Matthews is available. But they're not going to take the third best tackle to play on the right side in a draft they think they can get one later to go opposite their anchor, left tackle Cordy Glenn. And Ebron would probably be the best all-around tight end the Bills have ever had and fits the effort to surround E.J. Manuel with competence.
10. LIONS – DT Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh; Mike O'Hara, detroitlions.com
O'Hara sees anything happening in Detroit because the Lions have moved around in the draft on GM Martin Mayhew's watch. Yes, they could trade up to get Watkins. Yes, they could trade down to get LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., in what seems to be a search for Calvin Johnson's running mate. But if they stay put, they get a guy that allows them to explore a trade for disgruntled Ndamukong Suh or let Nick Fairley, another first-round defensive tackle, head to free agency next year after they didn't pick up his fifth-year option.
11. TITANS – OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA; Jim Wyatt, The Tennessean
The safe pick. Barr is considered the last hybrid outside rusher with any kind of pop left and he fits the Titans who have a bunch of guys at backer. And old friend and new Titans defensive coordinator Ray Horton is looking to be his multiple self. Plus, Barr's defensive coordinator in L.A., Lou Spanos, is the new Titans linebackers coach.
12. GIANTS – T Taylor Lewan, Michigan; Mike Eisen, Giants.com
They're rebuilding the offensive line and with struggling left tackle Will Beatty coming off a broken leg, this fits right in with an offseason they went out and signed four free-agent offensive linemen. If Donald is there, they'll be tempted. But probably not enough to wander out of the O-line.
13. RAMS - CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State; Jim Thomas, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
For the second straight mock, Thomas is sticking with Dennard in a close call over Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert. Gilbert has the recovery speed, but Dennard is the better player, it appears, and the Rams need depth with the departure of veteran Cortland Finnegan. Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson are two small-school corners that went back -to-back in the second and third rounds of 2012 and still have some rough spots. They figure they can get their safety in the second round.
14. BEARS – FS Calvin Pryor, Louisville; Brad Biggs, The Chicago Tribune
Pryor is listed as a free safety that has a big hitter's rep that matches the Bears' need on a defense that has stockpiled players this offseason.
15. STEELERS – CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State; Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Dulac spent some time this offseason talking to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin about points of emphasis and Tomlin noted that the Steelers played a sub package on defense (with at least five defensive backs) 65 percent of the time, up from 55 percent the year before. Tomlin told Dulac they need to find ways to better defend in sub packages, particularly against the run.
With cornerback Ike Taylor coming back for one final year at a reduced rate, Pittsburgh has to beef up the corner spot. They're also entertaining a tall wide receiver here, but they can get one in the next round, or even in the third.
16. COWBOYS G-T Zack Martin, Notre Dame; Todd Archer, ESPNDallas.com
For the second straight mock, Archer goes with Martin, a guy some see as the last available tackle in the first round. With right tackle Doug Free set to move on after next season, Martin could get his feet wet at guard.
17. RAVENS - S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama; Aaron Wilson, The Baltimore Sun
Also for the second straight mock, Wilson goes with Clinton-Dix as the playmaking center-field successor to Ed Reed. Mosley is tempting because he fits to well into the 3-4 inside backer spot, but the second-round pick from last season, Arthur Brown, still hasn't had a chance there. Besides, Clinton-Dix would allow them to move last year's first-rounder, Matt Elam, to his more natural role of strong safety. Wilson believes it's a good pick for a good team coming off a bad year.
18. JETS - WR Odell Beckham Jr., LSU; Rich Cimini, NewYorkESPN.com
We've got a run of three straight picks that were the same as the last Bengals.com Media Mock Draft on April 8. The Jets would love it. Beckham is a dynamic guy in and out of the slot who is also a first-rate returner. He must be so good that it's distracting Jets head coach Rex Ryan from his desperate desire to get a cornerback. They apparently feel this is too high for Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller, Ohio State's Bradley Roby, and Texas Christian's Jason Verrett.
The Jets really need a receiver to pan out. The last time a skill position player drafted by the Jets in the first round went to the Pro Bowl was wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson in 1996.
19. DOLPHINS – ILB C.J. Mosley, Alabama; Chris Perkins, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Miami seems convinced they'll be able to address its soap opera of an offensive line in the second round, particularly at right tackle. But Mosley helps a defense that got pushed around to the tune of 24th against the rush last season, especially at the backer level. He can move into the middle, Dannell Ellerbe can move from the middle to SAM, and they could bench Koa Misi.
20. CARDINALS - DE Kony Ealy, Missouri; Kent Somers, The Arizona Republic
They need a safety but the top two are gone and it's too high for Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward. And they've got bigger needs than replacing 34-year-old quarterback Carson Palmer with, say, Bridgewater.
Like replacing pass-rusher John Abraham, who turns 36 the week of the draft. He's coming off an 11.5-sack season, but now's the time to replace him.
Ealy, a junior, would have to make the transition from end to outside backer in a 3-4. His rap is he's got potential but not the production with eight sacks last season in his second year as a starter.
Arizona GM Steve Keim may want to trade out of here like he did last season in the second round for an extra fourth-rounder and sixth-rounder and the sixth-rounder was running back Andre Ellington, the rookie sensation out of Clemson.
21. PACKERS – DT Louis Nix, Notre Dame; Vic Ketchman, Packers.com
If Mosley's not here and they can't trade out, there could be a big-time discussion in Green Bay about Nix and Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier.
Shazier is strictly an inside guy. Ketchman calls him a 3-4 Steelers backer who would really excel where Larry Foote did in Pittsburgh, a guy that can really run to the ball and fit what Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers wants out of a 3-4 weak backer inside. He'd probably play the WILL in a 4-3.
But Nix is a rare guy, a big nose tackle who might be versatile enough to play end in a 3-4 as well as a three technique in a 4-3. If he didn't hurt his knee and gain some weight, he'd probably be a Vince Wilfork top ten type. With B.J. Raji brought back on just a one-year deal, this may be the best move for 2015.
*22. EAGLES – CB Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech; Paul Domowitch, The Philadelphia Daily News *
Like the Bengals, the Eagles don't have a lot of immediate needs, but one look at their depth chart would signal cornerback. With Cary Williams' cap number hitting $8 million in '15, this is probably his last roundup in Philly. The 5-11 Fuller would also keep the height factor intact with the 6-0 Williams and 6-0 Bradley Fletcher. They're looking for a wideout, but like a lot of teams, they'll wait until the second round.
23. CHIEFS – OLB Dee Ford, Auburn; Terez Paylor, The Kansas City Star
Speaking of big caps hits, Tamba Hali turns 31 this year and celebrates with a big number this year and next. But they could ease in Ford, an end in college, while keeping intact a pass-rush duo with Justin Houston on the other side in the 3-4. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has been known to take defensive linemen in the first round (Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Mike Patterson) and so did GM John Dorsey when he was in on the Raji draft in Green Bay in '09.
24. BENGALS - WR Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
You can already hear the pitchforks scraping against the sidewalks and see the fires starting against the Bengaldom horizon. Why in the name of A.J. Green would you take a player at their deepest position?
Because if you can't get a good player in the first round at a premium position (quarterback, offensive tackle, defensive line, cornerback), then just get the highest rated player on your board and go from there. That's the Bengals theme that has paved the way for five straight drafts that have been met with relative acclaim in league circles.
Don't try to turn a top-of-the-second-round tackle into a first-round tackle. Or don't do at cornerback what they did before the Johnathan Joseph-Leon Hall days and took Mark Roman and Keiwan Ratliff in the second round because they desperately needed one and paid the price with reaches.
We have no idea how the Bengals have rated guys like Bridgewater, Shazier, Roby, Verrett, Ward, Virginia tackle Morgan Moses, USC center Marcus Martin, and other guys that have surfaced as late first-rounders in mocks.
Maybe they'll take one of them here because the grade is high enough. Maybe they'll trade back. Or maybe one of the players in this mock that isn't here now will be there Thursday night.
But if you go by this board and go by the best player, you can make the argument that Cooks is the best player available.
Shazier is the best linebacker in the draft, but in this day and age of nickel defense, how many times have the Bengals taken a college linebacker in the first round since 2000? One. Keith Rivers. How'd that work?
Bridgewater? Here? Hard to see it, but we've seen stranger.
If you look at some mocks, Cooks is right there. Mel Kiper Jr., has him going No. 18 to the Jets. ESPN's big board put together by Scouts Inc., ranks him as the 20th player in the draft. So does cbssports.com's prospect rankings.
At 5-9, 190 pounds, Cooks has that 4.33-second 40-yard speed Hue Jackson loves. He's the Fred Biletnikoff winner as the nation's best receiver and if the Ravens just got Steve Smith, then this is the young Steve Smith. He's tough, makes the tough catch over the middle and always makes the first guy miss. He can pluck the ball with a 36-inch vertical, is a nightmare on screens and last year's 16 TDs showed he can go all the way at any point. Plus, he might be able to help in the return game. Like the Andrew Whitworth pick in 2005, the Michael Johnson pick in 2009, the Carlos Dunlap pick in 2010, and their first three picks last April, just take the best player.
And worry about it later.
Hey, the last Oregon State receiver they drafted worked out pretty well, 507 catches (third most in franchise history) after T.J. Houshmandzadeh went in the 2001 seventh round.