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Hobson's Choice: Feeling A Draft

Running back Joe Mixon looking to spring into action with that other Joe.
Running back Joe Mixon looking to spring into action with that other Joe.

Hi Geoff! I am already excited for next season, both for the games and "Hobson's Choice." My question is about our free agents. Seems like we have a lot of them this year. Who do we bring back, who do we need the most and who do we miss? David Kroeger, Houston, TX

DAVID: Thank you checking in. I agree with Dave Lapham and Dan Hoard on this. If there is one guy they need back, it is edge rusher Carl Lawson. And I'd love to also re-sign cornerback William Jackson III. Both are the top free agents at their positions, according to Pro Football Focus' top 100, which makes you think the Bengals are doing something right on the personnel side.

If they could re-sign both, that would be quite a free-agent haul in itself and would be like last year's first day blockbuster of landing Texans nose tackle D.J. Reader and Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes. It just seems as if they really can't lose Lawson. He's their best pass rusher on a team with the fewest sacks in the NFL over the past two seasons. He's not an alpha, 15-sack-a-year guy, but he's the next best thing, effective enough that offensive lines have to know where he is and double him at times.

Good cornerbacks aren't on every corner, either, but if you had to pick a need that is rarer, it would have to be the pass rusher, you would think. Plus, they do have Waynes. But if they lose Jackson, they need to get someone to run with Waynes.

Another top priority re-signing, I would think, is safety Brandon Wilson. He's a Pro Bowl-caliber special teamer as well as one of the top kick returners in the league as well as a featured gunner.

Geoff: Every year your solution to giving our QB better protection is to run the ball more. Don't you need a better offensive line to do that? Is it time for the Bengals to give up the "we don't pay guards" philosophy? Bill Huffman, Hamilton, OH

BILL: Because every year it is the best solution. It's the most tried and true solution. It's also the most pragmatic and economic. You can have five of Anthony Munoz in there and you couldn't protect Patrick Mahomes if they knew he had to pass.

I know it's a passing league, but I don't think there is any coincidence that of the 10 teams that allowed the fewest sacks per pass this season, seven of them were ranked in the middle of the pack or higher running the ball. And five were in the top 11.

It's not so much run the ball more. It's run the ball better. The Steelers, always the league's flagship team when it came to running the ball, allowed the fewest sacks per pass this year and were last in rushing because they changed their offense to get it out quickly almost every snap. They abandoned the run. How did that work out? The OC was canned and they're talking about getting back to the run in Pittsburgh.

You want to protect Joe Burrow? Start by finishing higher than 21st in rushing, which they haven't done in the past four seasons.

I talked about this, too, in the last years of Marvin Lewis. There has to be a commitment, a desire and a mindset to run the ball and to run the ball better.

And, yes, they need to get better on the offensive line to do that. They're not averse to paying guards, they just don't want to make them the highest paid guards in the league. That's fair, given what you have to pay people on the edge. Kevin Zeitler is on his second team since he left the Bengals when Cleveland made him the NFL's highest-paid guard. A solid player. But when you need edge rushers, defensive tackles, cornerbacks?

I said this in the last column. Their best move in free agency on the offensive line may have been re-signing offensive line coach Frank Pollack and making him the run game coordinator. The one season he coached them in 2018, they didn't exactly break the bank at guard with Clint Boling and Alex Redmond and running back Joe Mixon had their most rushing yards in the past dozen seasons on 4.9 yards per carry.

And in the last half of 2019, when Mixon had more yards than anybody but Derrick Henry, the guards were mostly John Miller and a rookie, Michael Jordan. So while I get it, they're trying to upgrade at guard, it's just not about money and personnel. It takes a little bit of everything.

Hey Mr Hobson, my question pertains to the draft and fee agency. If we're active in FA by signing say, Curtis Samuel and Brandon Scerff, how would you like to see the draft unfold with who we pick and where? Maybe a trade back? James Harrison, West Chester, OH

JAMES: I think free agency is going to dictate the draft when it comes to the second round and beyond. Just like last year, when then the money blitz on defense allowed them to take Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins at the top of the second.

But even if they land a high-priced offensive lineman like Brandon Scherff, I would think they'd still draft Oregon tackle Penei Sewell if he's there. Even if they pick up a free agent wide receiver (which is a long shot in my opinion), I'm guessing they would still take LSU's Ja'Marr Chase.

And that's the problem. What if neither of them are there? That's when you start thinking about a trade down. I hope they're thinking about a trade anyway so they can pick off another high or a middle second-round pick. Even if they re-sign Lawson and/or Jackson or someone to take their spots, you could conceivably slide down a few spots and still get the draft's second best tackle in Northwestern's Rashawn Slater and walk out of the second with an edge rusher and cornerback.

While free agency does dictate some of the draft decisions, it doesn't certainly dictate all. The Bengals are at their best when they pick the best player on the board and there are a slew of examples to show you're never stacked at a position because of injury. If two prospects are even, it may come down to need, but they try not to be married to the depth chart when they rank guys.

With the 1st round pick potentially leaning towards JaMarr Chase, a hopeful return from Burrow, and some O-Line additions, how much of an impact will this have on the Bengals success in 2021? Ben Speer, Mason, OH

BEN: Throw in Chase with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd and, well, it makes me get a little nostalgic for Carson Palmer hooking up with Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry. The impact of adding Chase would be on this side of huge.

Based on Joe's tragic injury last season can we expect him to be the same JB. What will Cincy do to bolster there run game in support of JB's passing capabilities. Richard Griffin, Fairbanks, AK

RICHARD: Every knee, every injury, every quarterback is different so nobody knows that answer. All I know is that Carson Palmer suffered a similar injury two months after Burrow did and was back in time to play every game and be named the Pro Bowl MVP about 54 weeks after the injury. Like I say, everybody is different. But Burrow has similar talent, drive and work ethic and with modern medicine 15 years better, I would say the odds are with him to still be a great difference maker.

The Bengals have already made a big move to upgrade the run with the hiring of Pollack and making him the run coordinator. Now he has to evaluate what he has and what's out there.

Great articles! Burrow has struggled with timing on the deep ball, and with another offseason missed, do you think he will have time to hook up with his receivers, and get that precious timing down before going live in games? Thanks! Chris Maushart, Cincinnati, OH

CHRIS: Thank you for reading them. You ask a hell of a question. The way it's looking, there won't be anyone here until training camp in July, just like last season.

We're all guessing, of course, but that's certainly the way it is looking at this point. Plus, no one knows when Burrow might be ready to go. He says he'll be ready for the regular season, but when he's ready to start practicing is still unknown.

So, yeah, he's going to have another offseason of missed reps with his receivers, a major reason for their failure to consistently connect on the deep ball. But given it is Burrow's second year in the league and in the system and he has a history of throwing to most of these guys, the results figure to be much better despite the rehab and the pandemic.

Mr. Hobson, What are the plans for the 2021-23 draft coming from Director of personnel and Mike Brown? Does Coach Taylor have input in this? How much emphasis will be on free agent than draft. Cincy needs a Super Bowl Mike Garvin, Martin, TN

MIKE: I think I know what the plans are for the 2021 draft. Bulk up both lines. That's just a guess, but probably a good one. You have to attack the draft year by year and according to your roster, but the overall philosophy is to surround the franchise quarterback. Head coach Zac Taylor talks to Bengals president Mike Brown and director of player personnel Duke Tobin every day and has a lot of input in the draft. It's noteworthy that the first two picks in 2019 and the first two picks in 2020 were offensive players.

They always put more of a premium on the draft than free agency, but that didn't preclude them last year from committing a record amount on signings from other teams. No one knows how that is going to go now. How can they? The salary cap is going down from last year and reportedly the exact figure won't be known until pretty much the day free agency starts in mid-March. A lot of TBAs.

A lot of talk about the Bengals marking moves this off season on the offensive side of the ball how do the Bengals address the other side especially keeping in regards we play in a tough AFC north division and other AFC teams? Chris Penny, Lorain, OH

CHRIS: The same way. A blend of the draft and free agency. Remember, last year they committed about $120 million to defensive free agents. Hard to see them matching that this year, particularly with the salary cap going down.

But I'd love to see the money go to defense again. I know they need to upgrade the offensive line and add a stretch-the-field wide receiver. But they've got some players that can line up there and give them snaps. There are some spots they struggle to do that on defense (edge rusher, slot corner), where there are other big questions (is Geno Atkins back to health?) that have to be addressed before offense, I would think.

Been a while. I hope all is well with you & family. Do you think that many issues will be addressed by FA prior to the draft? I'm hoping that that the front office will draft with a BPA mentality, regardless. Thoughts? Victor Pate, Dayton, OH

VICTOR: Good to hear from you again and I hope the same for you and yours. I think they'll do as much as they can in free agency, like last season. Joe Burrow's rookie contract allows them to do that. But I just don't know how much that is going to be. Hard to make any predictions without knowing the cap number.

Best Player Available and Needs are hard to separate. It has to be a mixture of both. But I don't think you have to worry about that.

They prefer BPA. One of the reasons the Bengals have drafted very well with Tobin running the draft room (for the last three seasons the Bengals have gone into every game as one of the top five teams that have drafted the most players still in the NFL) is because they don't draft as much with their depth chart as they do with their grades.

But, like Paul Brown once said, "You draft for need and don't let anyone tell you differently." Take last year. They took Tee Higgins because he was their highest rated player on the board. In the third round they took Logan Wilson because they needed linebackers. The key is drafting positions you need with players you've ranked higher than where you select them.

At #5 Sewell, Chase, Parson, or Slater... each prospect appears to have great upsides. If OT (and Guard) are addressed in FA, then it needs to be Micah Parson, or JaMarr Chase. If not then it HAS to be Penei Sewell... maybe Slater. Right? Kiva Dior, Sr., Cincinnati, OH

KIVA: At the top of the draft (and really, everywhere else but especially the top), you have to go by your board no matter what you've done in free agency. So Sewell and Chase, yes. No. 5 may be a little rich for Slater and instead of taking a linebacker there in Parsons, they could explore trading back to get some picks.

To me, that's the biggest question. If Sewell and Chase aren't there, what do they do? I love DeVonta Smith, but a 175-pound wide receiver who doesn't have blinding speed at No. 5? A backer at No. 5? But, hey, if they think Parsons can be Devin White, by all means.

What is Shawn Williams future with the Bengals #36 Marion Jackson, Cincinnati, OH

MARION: Like everything else in 2021, all we can do is wait and see.

Appreciate all your wisdom about my Bengals. Why not offer A.J. Green a one year contract similar to the deal Andy Dalton made with the Cowboys going from almost 18 million with us to just 3 million with them. I would love to keep A.J. Mike O'Brien, Springfield, OH

MIKE: Thank you for the kind words. Those guys just aren't in the same position.

Dalton became a free agent after last year's draft, Dallas is where he lives and he wanted just a one-year deal to prove he's still a starter. But Green is going to be a free agent on day one and no doubt seeks a multi-year deal as one of the league's great players looking to finish his career with a flourish. I wish that were here, too. They don't make many human beings greater than A.J. Green. The problem is someone may very well offer him a deal the Bengals can't match as they try to upgrade both lines.