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Hobson's Choice: How About Another Opener?

Rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins is part of a deep position group.
Rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins is part of a deep position group.

In the case that the Bengals don't make the playoffs, what's more important: winning as many games as possible to create culture and momentum into next year OR while not tanking, still losing enough games to have a top 5 pick in every round? Brandon Johnson, Beavercreek, OH

BRANDON: For openers, how about next week? You can really look at it like the first game of the second half of this season, Nov. 15 in Pittsburgh, is rookie quarterback Joe Burrow and his offense's true opener. Same thing with a devastated defense that spent the first half dealing with injuries up front and the back as well as the massive offseason overhaul.

Burrow has now had what amounts to those four extended scrimmages and four pre-season games that he didn't get in May, June and August. On the verge of shattering a ton of NFL rookie records, it makes you wonder what he and this offense could have done in a non-pandemic season.

But, to your question, basically you're asking, why finish 6-2 and take yourself out of drafting the best (fill-in the blank) pass rusher, defensive tackle or cornerback?

(Note I didn't put offensive tackle in there. It looks to me like they've got four guys that can do well in there. Sure, you can always upgrade. But, please, draft a defensive lineman in the first round on the 20th anniversary of the last time they did it when they took Justin Smith in 2001.)

There's no substitute for getting momentum on the field and letting these young guys get the reps. Their stars and breadwinners for the next five years from the last three drafts are already leading the team and playing and that's what the second half of this season is all about. They're not going to be tanking. These kids are trying to plant their career in the ground and that's how you form a locker-room culture.

Go back a dozen years ago. The Bengals went into the second half of the 2008 season at 0-8 with their injured franchise quarterback out for the year, a young offensive line re-shuffled and re-done and a no name defense led by two young cornerbacks getting barked into shape during the first year of coordinator Mike Zimmer' scheme.

They finished off the season 4-3-1 with guys like running back Cedric Benson and safety Chris Crocker knocking the helmets off Steelers Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward to set a culture tone for the next season. The Bengals came out of nowhere as the surprise of '09, sweeping the division for the AFC North title with that hard-nosed mindset and momentum they bottled the previous November and December.

And this roster has a heck of a lot more talent than that one.

To me, those reps and that momentum means more than getting the second pick or the 12th pick. OK, do you miss out on a Hall of Fame pass rusher? Let's face it, no one knows where that Hall of Famer is in the draft. He may be like Geno Atkins and sitting in the fourth round.

But you've got these guys out there on the field right now and you know you're going to have them. Get them better. Make a run.

Besides, it makes the Karma better. If they were ever going to tank, they would have waved off special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons' on-side kick last year in Miami. They didn't, they played it on the up and up, went into OT and still got Burrow.

Hi Geoff, We've got the best WR corps in NFL. Why not rotate them to keep them fresher than the DB's that are covering them. I would make the disgruntled ones earn their keep or stay on the bench! Thanks. Lynn S. Marshall, Cincinnati, OH

LYNN: They certainly have been good, haven't they? But I think, actually, the Bengals wide receivers are fairly well-rotated when you compare them to some of the league's top passing teams. It's a deep group when you consider Auden Tate, Mike Thomas, John Ross III, and Alex Erickson, but when you look at the top guys – and according to Football Outsiders - Tyler Boyd has the most snaps of any Bengals receiver with 77.8 percent of the snaps and A.J. Green is second with 71.1 percent.

Look at Seattle with D.K. Metcalf (95.3) and Tyler Lockett (93), the Rams with Robert Woods (90.6) and Cooper Kupp (88.3), and the Cardinals with D'Andre Hopkins (91.6) and Larry Fitzgerald (79.5). Even the Panthers with D.J. Moore (85.4) and Robby Anderson (76.6).

Bengals rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins is at 68.6 percent of the snaps and nearly 50 more receivers have more, so he should be playing more and not fewer. Plus, I think head coach Zac Taylor does a nice job mixing in Thomas (28.4) and Tate (21.3) and they're just one of nine teams with five wide receivers taking at least 21.3 percent of the snaps. So they look to be in pretty good shape with the current rotation.

Hobs, always good to read you! I am a little worried about our wide receiver/ tight end crew. We are a little lacking in the speed department with the expected departure of John Ross and A J Green turning into a possession receiver FA. Dale Miller, Cincinnati, OH

DALE: Thank you for the kind words and I hear you. Every catch seems to be a 50-50 ball, right? One of the times they did get down-field separation, Ross, their fastest wide receiver, couldn't pull in a touchdown in the opener. But in that same game, Green was wide open for a long TD, and yet Burrow overthrew him.

You get separation with more than speed. It's the running game, its timing, it's reps in the system, it's savvy enough to gain leverage and position and the young quarterback learning the leans and means of his receivers. Watch Green bust some long ones in the second half. If running back Joe Mixon does what he did last second half, watch Higgins' separation.

So, sure, it's nice to have 40 speed, but, gee, did you see Green Bay wide receiver Davante Adams Thursday night? (10 catches for 173 yards.) The guy ran a 4.5 40 at the combine. Six years ago. And the Niners couldn't cover him deep. A tip of a hat to the Packers' running game, by the way. I think the Bengals are OK there.

As for the tight ends, I think they really like where they are there even though they don't have a 2015 Tyler Eifert Pro Bowl wide receiver type. Drew Sample is what they thought he was as a real good blocker who can hurt you badly underneath in the passing game. Injured C.J. Uzomah is athletic enough to do what he did on Burrow's first NFL TD pass. Just before he suffered a season-ending Achilles' injury in the second game of the season, Uzomah won a 23-yard TD down-field matchup.

Plus, you've only got one ball for Mixon, running back Giovani Bernard and the three, four and five receivers. This offense chooses to get matchups not with tight ends, but with backs and formations. It doesn't matter how you get the matchups, just get them.

It looked like Billy Price played very well at center. It makes me wonder if the line is better with Price at center and Hopkins at guard? Hopkins is great at center but I wonder if the unit would be better? Frank Angst, Lexington, KY

FRANK: Wow, compare that to the questions of a month ago. Nice problem to have, right? No question. Billy Price is probably a better center than guard. He didn't get to be a first-round pick by accident. Trey Hopkins is the vicar of versatility.

But starting guards Michel Jordan and Alex Redmond were hitting their groove before Jordan got sick the morning of the Titans win (when they think Redmond had his best game of the season) and we know how well newcomer Quinton Spain played in Jordan's spot last Sunday.

I kind of like Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham's idea of rotating seven to eight guys through a game, so the question may not be of personnel but how often they deploy them. Taylor has been saying for a month how the O-line had improved as they played more and more together and even this week he has indicated he's sticking with the injured guys when they come back.

But last Sunday they got a glimpse of some young guys that showed they deserve more reps. They'll have to find a middle way between consistency and development.

Hello Mr. Hobson. I enjoy your Q&A's on your sight. Just wondering seeing the Bengals didn't make any more moves in the trade scene just thinking they didn't try and trade A.J. I assume there going to make him an offer in the off-season. John Pasarge, Wilmington, OH

JOHN: Thank you for becoming a part of the column.

A.J. Green is a great player, an even greater person and a true franchise icon who is a Bengal for as long as they wear the stripes. I think there's no doubt they'll make him an offer to return. How much it is and how he feels about it and where it fits into a pandemic-impacted salary cap, well, I'll give you the typical 2020 answer. Hard to talk about next year when you don't know about tomorrow.

A good middle linebacker is needed to stop the run. Can you trade for one? And the offense needs a fullback to help the running game and block for the QB on pass plays. Vallon Lawrence, Douglasville, GA

VALLON: That's an interesting call on the middle backer. I think they did what they had to do when they went out and signed Josh Bynes in the offseason. They didn't trade for him, but that was a good, solid pickup. You can't fairly grade Bynes against the run, or any other Bengals backer for that matter when you look what has happened to the defensive tackles.

D.J. Reader, out. Geno Atkins, reduced. They started one game with tackles that got here Labor Day (Chase Covington) and around Columbus Day (Xavier Williams) and God love them because they've been really good. Throw in another Thank God for Mike Daniels, who got here just before they put the pads on in camp and has been terrific with leadership, and this thing has been a work in progress. The backers are doing what they can.

As for the fullback, you're talking to a guy that loves fullbacks. Zac Taylor, not so much. Every time the Bengals play a good one, he kills them. But, if the Bengals can keep scoring 30 points a game and keep Burrow healthy without one, OK with me.

Why hasn't Trayveon Williams had any playing time? Jeff Ward, Virgie, KY

JEFF: It's a good question. You figured a former SEC leading rusher would get a shot with Mixon out for a couple of games, but as yet, no carries. I think there a few things at play.

The big thing is protecting Burrow and you've got two vet running backs in Giovani Bernard and Samaje Perine that know their way around the pocket. Bernard is one of the best backs in the league when it comes to picking up the blitz and Perine is a 235-pound rock. Pro Football Focus has had them among Burrow's top protectors with Mixon out as they combined to allow just one pressure on 42 chances in the last two games.

So there's that and just the simple problem of having one ball and three backs.