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Quick Hits: Duke Tobin Eyes Bengals' Trenches, Keeping Higgins And Chase Together, And High Ceilings Of Last Two First-Round Picks

Head Coach Zac Taylor speaks with Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin during practice on December 20, 2023.
Head Coach Zac Taylor speaks with Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin during practice on December 20, 2023.

MOBILE, Ala. _ In his first media shot since after the season, Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin realized his goal of not breaking news a month before the NFL scouting combine.

But as he took a break Tuesday between the Senior Bowl practices and interview sessions, Tobin underscored his club's desire to shore up the trenches and keep 1,000-yard receivers Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins together.

"There hasn't been a year we don't want to continue to develop both lines of scrimmage," Tobin said. "That's where the game is won and lost. There are great players on every team that are great skill players and you need them to make big plays in big moments and they want the ball in their hands in big moments. But the game is won and lost on the line of scrimmage and everyone is down here at the Senior Bowl focused on the line of scrimmage.

"Those are the guys that are hard to find. You get a great rusher and it makes teams have to rely on their tackles. And if they're not up to it, it's a big problem. You want to be that problem for the other team and solve that problem for yourself."

The Bengals' problem is that right tackle Jonah Williams is a free agent after a season and he showed the NFL he can also play right after playing his first three seasons at left.

"It was impressive," Tobin said. "He showed he's versatile, which will play well over time with him."

Tobin says he's not sure of Williams' future. His offseason theme is the Bengals' salary cap is a pie and teams may be willing to give Williams a bigger piece of their own pie.

Higgins, a free agent in March, and Chase, under contract for another year and eligible to sign an extension, are also part of a pie that is only so big. Tobin wouldn't comment on the possibility of giving Higgins the franchise tag and then trading him or of Chase's stated desire to sign after Vikings Pro Bowler Justin Jefferson.

"We like Ja'Marr. He's in our long-term plans. He's a high-level player in this league. And we want to keep those kinds of players on our team," Tobin said. "I want Tee Higgins back. Everyone on our team would like Tee Higgins back. There's a pie and there are things we can do and can't do because of it. We'll see."

FIRST-ROUND GRADES: Tobin is bullish on the Bengals' last two first-round picks. In his first year as a starter and second year in the NFL, safety Dax Hill led the defense in snaps and had a year full of flash marred by some inconsistent play. Edge Myles Murphy began to play more late in the season and had Pro Football Focus' second-best rookie pressure grade.

Tobin thinks once Hill finds a consistent niche, he'll blossom.

"A rare athlete," Tobin said. "Great speed, courageous in the run game, can come out of the middle of the field and defend the go ball.

"I think he's a guy that can play multiple roles, but I don't think we want to make him a jack of all and master of none. We have to decide from a coaching standpoint what exactly we want out of him and make him a great player at that position."

As for Murphy, Tobin said, "I think he's got a good understanding of NFL football … He's really conscientious and has a huge upside. He just needs to go out there and make sure he grabs more play time. That's what young guys have to do."

SLANTS AND SCREENS: Tobin was extremely impressed with how vet left end Sam Hubbard played hurt late in the year with an undisclosed injury. But he did say he had surgery after the season and has no doubts "he'll revert back to the old Sam Hubbard."

"He was just a warrior and played through things most human beings wouldn't play through and gave us the opportunity to go out there with a chance to win. That's what Sam Hubbard is all about." …

There's no question the Bengals believe the year would have been a lot different if quarterback Joe Burrow had been healthy in the first and last months.

"I think he can process faster than almost any quarterback and I think he can run a lot of different things very, very effectively," Tobin said. "He's the type of quarterback you can put in almost anyone's offense and he's going to run it effectively. There are not a lot of guys like that. When he has everything at his disposal, it's pretty damn tough." ...

The Bengals don't have a tight end under contract, but Tobin has plans after not taking one in last year's draft filled with plenty of them. Maybe draft. Maybe free agency. But he also likes some of the guys from last year.

"The draft didn't fall to us where there was one we wanted at the time we were picking. We liked a lot of the guys. It didn't happen. We'll see what happens this year," Tobin said. "I think we've got some guys that played for us last year that showed they have a future with the Bengals and we'll see if we can get them back and then we'll try to supplement it." ...