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Hobson's Choice: Draft Trade Winds Swirl Amid Busy Bengals Free Agency. 

New Bengals slot cornerback Mike Hilton doing what the new-look defense seeks. Recovering a fumble.
New Bengals slot cornerback Mike Hilton doing what the new-look defense seeks. Recovering a fumble.

Greetings Mr. Hobson,

Defensively Speaking, a lot of 1yr. contracts, a lot of new faces, loading up on DBs & questions about 4-3/4-2/3-4, 3 Safeties & 4 CBs lining up. I'm excited & pessimistic. Lot of moving parts takes time. Thoughts? Victor Pate, Dayton, OH

VICTOR: Nice to hear from you again. I think they've significantly upgraded the defense. And that's because a lot of those upgrades come from a healthy D.J Reader at nose tackle and Trae Waynes at cornerback, two starters from last year's free agency limited to a combined five games because of injury. Even before talking about the six defensive players (four starters) they signed this year.

And what if (isn't that what sports are about? The "what ifs?"), the biggest upgrades are the young linebacker law firm making the jump in year one to two? Wilson, Bailey, Davis-Gaither & Pratt in their second year together might provide the biggest impact of all.

No matter the sport, good defense starts up the middle. They haven't been this big, athletic and productive at defensive tackle with Reader and Larry Ogunjobi since the heyday of Geno Atkins and Domata Peko several years ago. We can debate edge rushers Trey Hendrickson and Carl Lawson all day and I love Lawson. I wish he stayed. But I think they feel Hendrickson, who is a little bigger, is a little more durable and a better all-around player, particularly against the run. And, look, Dave Lapham said it, so I'll say it: 13.5 sacks is 13.5 sacks. Yes, the Saints always had the lead. Yes, he had good people around him while Lawson was the focal point for the offense. But only one Bengal (Carlos Dunlap) in the nearly 40 years of the sack stat has hit that number. A feat not to be glossed over and ho-hummed.

As for cornerbacks, some pundits feel slot man Mike Hilton is their best signing. You only have to look at his production in Pittsburgh (seven interceptions and 9.5 sacks) to know most teams would consider him a healthy upgrade. And if Waynes can be healthy with a veteran second-round pick in the steel-belted Chidobe Awuzie joining him on the outside at cornerback, they're a lot better off than last year when Waynes never played a snap.

And at safety, they simply may be among the top in the league with Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell, augmented by the return of speedy Brandon Wilson and the signing of a former Falcons captain in Ricardo Allen. Four new veterans in the secondary should make everyone sleep better.

Do you think the Bengals would move back with a trade to number 10 spot with Dallas moving up to 5th spot for Dallas's round 3 number 75 spot and round 4 number 115 spot? William Trapp, Columbus, OH

Just wondering if Chase is not there at 5, wouldn't it be better to trade down and get more picks? Because I believe this class is loaded with offensive and defensive lineman and you should be able to get quality lineman in later rounds. Earl Rush, London, KY

WILLIAM AND EARL: No question. All options are on the table. They may indeed try like hell to do it but can't find a partner. Doesn't mean they didn't try.

There ought to be a lot of interest in their pick if you believe everything you read. Four quarterbacks good enough to go with the top four picks? That would be the dream scenario and the Bengals get the first pick of the non-quarterback players.

Maybe it's going to happen. On Friday the Dolphins moved back from No. 3 to No. 12 (and eventually back to No. 6) with the 49ers conceivably moving up to three for a quarterback. So two of the four QBs are apparently spoken for. That leaves the Jets at two and the Falcons at four. Now, if their board is like everyone else's board and Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell along with LSU wide receiver and proven Joe Burrow target Ja'Marr Chase are top five players, they have to weigh their impact compared to a trade to say, maybe Carolina (8) . With San Francisco now out of the mix, that cuts down potential suitors for QB-strapped teams. But what about Denver (9), Minnesota (14), New England (15) and Washington (19)?

The trade theory is you come out of it with a combination of three starting/regular offensive or defensive linemen (if you think Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater is a top ten guy) with an extra high second-round pick. Plus, teams are getting high functioning rookie wide receivers in the third and fourth rounds these days.

That may be the play no matter who is available. But what if Sewell and Chase are Hall-of-Famers? And how high is the second-round pick?

Let's see. But no question. The four QBs put the Bengals in the trade discussion.

Hello Good Sir! What's the rationale for breaking the bank on a 6–25–1 coach two years in a row? They only provided Marvin Lewis with FA leftovers and released treasured veterans to gain compensatory draft picks (and he won). Just curious. Terrence Randolph, Huntsville, AL

TERRENCE: Let's rewind here.

In Marvin Lewis' second month as head coach in 2003, the free agency class of John Thornton, Tory James, Reggie Kelly and Kevin Hardy formed the foundation of the 2005 AFC North title and the return to contention. No leftovers there.

Certainly pass rusher Antwan Odom wasn't a leftover when they gave him a $30 million deal or so in 2008 when that was a contact in the top three-five for a defensive end. Neither was a former Super Bowl MVP in safety Dexter Jackson. Wide receiver Laveranues Coles lasted one year here (2009), but not before they signed him to the four-year, $28 million deal T.J. Houshmandzadeh later wished he had taken.

So the leftover thing, I think, is a bit overdone. To me, one of Lewis' several legacies here as coach is that he created a culture out of his sheer will, talent and charisma that convinced high-priced talent that the Bengals could compete for a Super Bowl title. With the backing of management.

Later in Marvin's tenure, basically the Green-Dalton Era, the Bengals did go the compensatory route. But that was only because their own players formed the nucleus of five straight play-off berths and they focused on dropping mega deals on their own guys.

Yes, no doubt, Lewis won. And he won while players like A.J. Green, Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap were getting top five deals. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict also took home two major contracts putting him in the elite. They won bidding wars for guys like Reggie Nelson and Michael Johnson.

In the last two seasons, with their draft picks not producing like they did in that stretch, they're back on the market. But with homegrown guys like Joe Burrow, Jessie Bates III, Sam Hubbard, Tee Higgins coming to the fore, they hope to return to keeping their own.

The Bengals have been active in free agency. Please write an article detailing which free agent signings have eliminated some pre-free agency team needs and what you see as the current needs and draft strategy. Thank you. Ken Taylor, Tuscaloosa, AL

KEN: Please check out Thursday's story on the roster re-set. Just off what they did in free agency, it looks to me like they may not draft defense until the last day. Yet they also sit nicely for a possible trade at No. 5 in a year it may be among the most coveted positions on the board.

Hello Geoff, Any whispering about taking TE Pitts in the first round? They seemed to have shored up their tackle spots with Reiff and Williams. Pitts, they say is a generational talent and pairing him with Sample would be great. David Merola, Halfmoon, NY

DAVID: Sure, there's always buzz about a top ten player and we know this team loves to throw. There's a sense that he puts the defense on its heels because you can use Florida tight end Kyle Pitts as a wide receiver and mix it up with 11 and 12 personnel to keep the defense guessing. They say nobody can cover him and he's a matchup nightmare.

But I'm not a Pitts guy. Make that a not-a-tight-end-that-high guy. I get nervous about Pitts because of guys like Vernon Davis and Kellen Winslow II. Both were the sixth pick in the draft that were supposed to change the game and didn't come close. That's a guy you take maybe at No. 21, like the Bengals did with Tyler Eifert. Or in the third round, like the Chiefs did with Travis Kelce. 

There's also the old Paul Brown principle. "Don't Take A Projection In The First Round." Is Pitts a projection if he's played like a wide receiver in the pros? I don't know but I don't want to be surprised at No. 5.

Don't get me wrong. Pitts is a hell of a prospect and I think he'll be a great pro. But there's an old school philosophy that seems to fit what the Bengals need at this moment in their development. The higher the draft pick, the bigger the guy should be.

Have the Bengals abandoned their philosophy of resigning their players? Steve Thompson, Dry Ridge, KY

STEVE: No. Just as recently as six months ago they gave Joe Mixon one of the biggest running backs deals in the league with a four-year, $48 million extension. One of the reasons they didn't push a bunch of money into next year's bigger salary cap while doing last week's free-agent deals is because they want to extend Bates and Hubbard at some point before this season.

And Joe Burrow is eligible for an extension after the 2022 season, so they'll need plenty of room for that.

They've been very consistent down through the years when it comes to second contracts. They draft you and you produce, they'll extend you. No question they need more drafted guys to produce like Mixon, Bates, Hubbard and Tyler Boyd.

Long time reader of Hobson's Choice, thanks for what you do, it helps me keep up with Who Dey from here in Northeast Ohio. I was sad to see AJ and Geno go, I understand the business side $ but it would have been nice to keep 2 HOFers. Thank you. Chris Williams, Magnolia, OH

CHRIS: Thank you for what you do and for taking the time to write. All of Bengaldom is in agreement with you. It happens all over sports, unfortunately, and has since the first pitched ball. Who would have thought Harry Wright would leave the Cincinnati Red Stockings to manage the Boston Red Stockings long before Tom Brady left Foxboro?

Hello Geoff, I have been reading your column forever. What to do think will happen with the o-line and who do you think should be the first lineman drafted depending on his availability?

Thank you. And keep up the good reporting Daniel Burke, Columbus, OH

DANIEL: Thank you for the kind words and the years of reading.

I think after the draft the O-line is going to look completely different than it looks today and after new-old O-line coach Frank Pollack gets them on the field it will look even different than that. (Don't forget last year's sixth-round pick Hakeem Adeniji.) To me the question for them isn't if Penei Sewell is the first lineman off the board. No question he is. But they have to figure out if Slater is good enough to take at No. 5 if Sewell isn't there.

If they go O-Line in round one, they'll have four first-rounders in the group with the rookie joining right tackle Riley Reiff, left tackle Jonah Williams and center Billy Price. And it would mark the fourth time in the last seven drafts they've gone O-line in the first round.

How is Trey Hopkins rehab coming? Mike Gray, Grand Prairie, TX

MIKE: As you would expect, Trey is a "pro's pro" and everything I hear is that he's attacked his rehab and is doing a fine job getting healthy. Don't know if that means he's ready for the opener, but it doesn't sound like the injury is going to be a major problem.

The Bengals now understand the importance of protecting Joe Burrow and are changing. There were a few 2020 games where the Bengals should have won, but didn't seem to know how. So can Burrow/Taylor install a "winning " culture in 2021? Mark Roth, Salem, NH

MARK: They always knew the importance of protecting Burrow, they just didn't do it and they know they must. That's not a change. It's an upgrade. Not only in personnel, but scheme. That's what they're trying to put together now.

Good question about culture. Riddle me this. Does culture come from winning or does winning come from culture?

I'll say this about Burrow and Zac Taylor. I think they're installing what they need to install because I think you saw it in the now famous recruiting dinner that won over Reiff, a decade-long NFL player who has seen it all.