The fascination in recent years that NFL fans have had with mock drafts has given the yearly exercise a popularity that can not easily be understated. Of course, what is difficult for most mocks to fully account for, at least during late March and early April, is the ever-fluid free agency situation, as money, leverage, and the wining-and-dining of 31 possible other clubs threaten to swipe away a piece of one team's carefully-constructed puzzle. Exhibit A this offseason surely is the effort by the Bengals to keep RT Andre Smith as a piece to the team's own expanding puzzle. While the club remains confident and optimistic it can bring Smith back into the fold, it knows it needs to be prepared to adjust in case things don't go according to plan.
And that's where the draft comes in. Anyone who has recently browsed the various mock drafts scattered around the Internet – something made easy by our Draft Central section – knows a majority of the picks are prefaced with some variation of the phrase, "If the Bengals can't sign Andre Smith." With that in mind, and fresh off our own "media mock draft," let us take a brief look around the world of mock drafts to explore some of the possibilities for April's version of the holiday season.
Pick by: Dave Lapham
TE Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame
WHY IT MAKES SENSE: As Lap points out, adding Eifert to two-time Pro Bowler Jermaine Gresham, as well as a developing Orson Charles, would make for a very talented trio of young tight ends. Eifert is more of a pass-catching tight end and must work on his blocking, but his speed (his 4.68 40-yard dash at the combine was fourth-best among TEs), smarts, hands and fluid athleticism make him very enticing. One particular area where Eifert excels is inside the red zone, where he uses his height, strength and leaping ability (35.5 inch vertical) to go up and get the ball. Head coach Marvin Lewis often harps on offensive efficiency in the red zone, and the numbers certainly back him up. Last postseason, Baltimore converted TDs on 71.4 percent of its trips to the red zone, while San Francisco converted on 70.0 percent of its trips. By comparison, New England led the NFL in the regular season at 70 percent, and New Orleans was second at 68.4 percent. There's no doubt Lewis and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden would like to improve on the Bengals' 54.4 percent mark (16th in the NFL) from last season.
Adding Eifert would not only give the Bengals another offensive option, but also another red zone specialist. When healthy last season, Mohamed Sanu proved to be a go-to red zone weapon, as four of his 16 total receptions (in five full games) were red-zone TDs. Add to the mix A.J. Green's all-everything ability, Andrew Hawkins's shiftiness on the inside, Marvin Jones's strength on the outside and Gresham's size and athleticism all over, and the Bengals would suddenly have a gluttonous wealth of receiving options in the red zone.
DEVIL'S ADVOCATE: Gresham has gone to two Pro Bowls in his first three NFL seasons, and Charles proved in his rookie season to be a valuable blocker, while also showing potential as a receiver. So is tight end a first-round priority, with two young and talented prospects already in the mix? The offense got production from Charles in 2012 and rookie college free agent TE Colin Cochart in '11, and with talented prospects figured to be peppered throughout the middle rounds of this draft, one has to wonder if the team is confident it can do similar things by picking an under-the-radar prospect later on.
Pick by: Don Banks
T D.J. Fluker, Alabama
WHY IT MAKES SENSE: If Smith and the Bengals can not come to an agreement, Fluker would seem to be an entirely logical pick. Don't let the 339 pounds fool you, because at 6-5, his build has been described as solid, not sloppy. There are obvious comparisons to Smith, given that both played collegiately at Alabama, and while most believe Smith to be the better athlete of the two, Fluker would certainly fill road grader void left by Smith on the right side of the line. Level of competition and coaching don't figure as much into Fluker's learning curve either, as he played on arguably one of the most dominant offensive lines in college football history, and did so on a weekly basis in the SEC against the country's top talent. He has also blocked for a few top-notch running backs along the way—Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon—as Alabama's running game has continued to be the cornerstone of its dominance in college football. As a two-time national champion for the Crimson Tide, Fluker comes with a winning pedigree, and he figures to be a plug-and-play, NFL-ready prospect.
DEVIL'S ADVOCATE: If Smith and the Bengals do come to terms, it will likely be for multiple years, meaning the team's right and left tackles are both locked in for the long haul, thus lessening need for an offensive tackle like Fluker. Even if Smith does come back though, don't entirely close the door on Fluker, as the Bengals in 2006 did spend a second round pick Andrew Whitworth, even though the offensive line picture was already considered stable. But this is a first-round pick, and the team has spent recent draft picks (Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling) and money in free agency (Travelle Wharton) to solidify the line, thus lessening the probability of position shuffling.
Pick by: Charley Casserly
WR Keenan Allen, California
WHY IT MAKES SENSE: Some around the league believe teams can never have enough wide receivers, or at least never have enough competition at wide receiver. That seems to be the philosophy employed here by Casserly, the former GM of the Redskins and Texans, as adding Allen would add to the competition/rotation at the second wide receiver spot. Allen would team with Sanu and Jones, his former college teammate at Cal, to earn snaps opposite Green on the outside. Allen is a physical wideout who uses his body well in traffic and can make the contested catch, but he can also beat you deep. The Ravens and Joe Flacco successfully showed everyone last postseason how to use a physical wideout like Anquan Boldin as a go-to weapon, specifically in the red zone. Adding Allen—a physical, versatile receiver—to the Bengals receiving corps could allow them to follow a similar blueprint, and it would add one more talented pass-catcher for whom opposing defensive coordinators must gameplan.
DEVIL'S ADVOCATE: Not once last season did A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Andrew Hawkins all see offensive time in the same game, so many feel the grade for the current receiving corps is incomplete. Adding another receiver to the mix may be beneficial, but spending a first-round pick to do so may not be necessary. Judging from recent published comments, there is little doubt the coaching staff is bullish on its current crop of receivers, so using the 21st selection on a wideout would likely mean employing a strategy of taking the best available player regardless of position.
Pick by: Pete Prisco
S Kenny Vaccaro, Texas
WHY IT MAKES SENSE: To many, the most obvious "need" for the Bengals in this draft (barring an Andre Smith departure) is the safety position. There's a strong possibility that veteran Chris Crocker has played his final game in stripes, and if that is indeed the case, it leaves a starting safety spot vacant. Many like Vaccaro as the top safety in this class, but in the end it may boil down to preference for the personnel department and coaching staff. Last spring, many draft analysts liked David DeCastro of Stanford as the top guard in the 2012 draft class, but the Bengals were comfortable with trading down and selecting Kevin Zeitler of Wisconsin. In the end, most felt the move worked out well for the Bengals, as Zeitler had a strong rookie season.
A four-year college player, Vaccaro is a leader with solid athleticism, good hips and the ability to play nickel. As a sophomore, he was Texas's special teams MVP, a distinction that is sure to get the attention of Lewis and special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons. Although some feel he may lack the top-end speed and burst of a top-flight NFL safety, possessing qualities like physicality and solid tackling ability could make him fit right in with the AFC North.
DEVIL'S ADVOCATE: The general consensus is that the Bengals will address safety at some point in the draft. Therefore, the issue isn't if the Bengals should take a safety, it is who they should take and when. Other early-round candidates include Matt Elam of Florida, Eric Reid of LSU and John Cyprien of Florida International. Since Marvin Lewis arrived in 2003, the Bengals have gotten solid production—barring injury—out of early-round defensive backs. Also, add to the mix Bengals scout Robert Livingston, who played defensive back in college, coached defense in the SEC at Vanderbilt, and now as a scout has focused on talent on the south, especially in the SEC. Add defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who specializes in defensive backs, and defensive backs coach Mark Carrier to the evaluation process this spring, and expect the Bengals to have their ducks in a row regarding the evaluation of this year's safeties.
Pick by: Nate Davis
DT Sheldon Richardson, Missouri
WHY IT MAKES SENSE: The departure of Pat Sims to Oakland last month leaves a void in the Bengals defensive tackle rotation. The numbers showed that when Sims was healthy and in the D-line rotation, the Bengals had a very stout run defense. Yes, the team last year did spend a second-round pick on Devon Still and a third-round pick on Brandon Thompson, but, as Davis points out, the defensive staff would like to have depth on the defensive line. Think back to recent years when the team has been forced by late-season injuries to sign and immediately play defensive linemen off the street, causing some struggles up front. Selecting a defensive tackle would protect against that scenario and provide depth. Richardson, a quick, light-footed three-technique, who excels as a pass rusher, would be able to team with Geno Atkins to add to Cincinnati's interior pass rush, which has proven to be so important to what the Bengals do defensively. Many criticized the New York Giants a few years ago for continually spending early-round picks on defensive linemen when they had other needs, but that strategy certainly didn't prevent them from winning two Super Bowl titles in five seasons.
DEVIL'S ADVOCATE: Sims was a 335-pound, run-stuffing defensive tackle, while Richardson's forte is penetration and pass-rushing, so selecting Richardson wouldn't as much fill the hole left by Sims as it would add to the interior pass-rushing rotation. But do the Bengals really need to spend a first-round pick on this position, merely for the sake of depth? None of the usual starters on last season's defensive line—Robert Geathers, Domata Peko, Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson—were even selected before the third round. It therefore appears the Bengals personnel department has a solid hold on the evaluation of defensive linemen, as production from this position under head coach Marvin Lewis has come almost exclusively from the middle rounds. Few, if any, NFL coaches in recent years have been more adept at developing those mid-round defensive linemen than Zimmer and defensive line coach Jay Hayes. In fact, the Bengals under Lewis have never even spent a first-round pick on a defensive lineman, and only twice have they spent a second-rounder there (Carlos Dunlap in 2010 and Still in '12). To fill the spot left by Sims, the Bengals could continue with the strategy that has produced all four starters on the defensive line, or they could reach a little higher for a first-round talent.
Pick by: Josh Norris
RB Eddie Lacy, Alabama
WHY IT MAKES SENSE: It's no secret the Bengals are searching for a running back to team with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Lacy is a popular choice among the gurus as the top back in this draft class. Offenses in the AFC North have long hung their hats on outstanding rushers—Corey Dillon, Jerome Bettis, Jamal Lewis and Ray Rice, just to name a few—so adding a back of Lacy's caliber to the Bengals backfield would be and attempt at following that formula. Lacy, as anyone who watched Alabama's national championship win over Notre Dame knows, is a big, strong, powerful runner with light feet and surprising agility for his size. Sharing carries with Green-Ellis wouldn't be new territory for him either, as he split carries with Richardson, then with Yeldon during his college career. Most importantly, maybe, is that he's a winner – a two-time national champion.
DEVIL'S ADVOCATE: This could boil down to injuries. Only twice in the Marvin Lewis era have the Bengals selected a running back in the first two rounds—Chris Perry in 2004 and Kenny Irons in '07 —and in both instances, injuries derailed their careers. Selecting Lacy would not ease many worries in that regard, as he has struggled with injuries. He was said to have played through multiple injuries last season at Alabama, then he suffered a hamstring injury right before the NFL Combine in February, and he has not worked out for NFL scouts since. ESPN's Adam Schefter and NFL Network's Ian Rapoport have both reported that Lacy will work out for scouts on April 11, but the injury concerns undoubtedly still loom. Add to it that many feel there is great value at running back in this draft is between the second and fourth rounds, where it's believed somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 running backs could be taken. For a team playing in the rugged AFC North, it could be difficult to spend a first-round pick on someone with a history of injuries, when another highly-productive runner with fewer injury concerns could be available in the second, third or fourth round.