For the first time in five drafts the AFC champion Bengals are looking at selecting a player in next week's first round that's not expected to start Opening Day.
After a third straight bountiful free agency and back-to-back drafts featuring franchise record-breakers, the Bengals are looking at using their latest first-round pick in 33 years on depth.
"I don't view us as having immediate starter needs," said Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin in Friday's briefing with the Cincinnati media in the run-up to Thursday night's No. 31 pick.
"It will be up to the players and how they compete as to whether they play and how much they play and whether they become starters this year, next year. But yeah, we feel good about our overall roster. We were able to fill some needs through free agency. We're pretty flexible to taking guys for the future if that's what has to happen."
Tobin confirmed that cornerback is a need ("Anybody can look at our roster and see we need some more guys there") and hinted what has become an almost annual trade down in the second round could happen again. Since 2017, Tobin has traded down in the second round in all but one draft. And the last time the Bengals picked this low, when Bengals founder Paul Brown was in the draft room, they moved out of the first round from No. 27 to No. 35 for UCLA running back Eric Ball, the club's current director of player relations.
"We consider it like taking some of the high picks in the second round that we've had," Tobin said. "So we feel good about our ability to do that. We're not going to turn down good players at positions that might not be immediate needs, so we'll see what's left for us."
Tobin says it's rare for him to chase a trade during the draft. He indicated those swaps in the second round happened while the clock was ticking as he mostly fielded offers from other teams. He says they're not going to trade so far down that they can't get commensurate talent.
"We put them in buckets rather more than rank. We won't leave a bucket of players, like players, similar players, players that are very comparable in ability levels," Tobin said. "We won't leave that bucket for a position of need down in the lower bucket. We try to stay in that group of players that we feel are worthy of the pick."
After signing three offensive line starters last month in free agency and drafting three more last year, Tobin is bullish on a depth chart that is suddenly crowded behind the starters. Second-rounder Jackson Carman is trying to win the left guard spot, fourth-rounder D'Ante Smith is a swing tackle and sixth-rounder Trey Hill is backing up both guards as well as freshly signed veteran center Ted Karras. Isaiah Prince, who started the last two months at right tackle, is the other swing tackle.
"If there's a guy that improves, us that we think will have a good career in this league, we're not going to pass him, particularly if he's the best guy on the board," Tobin said. "But yeah, sometimes it does come down to a numbers game and you've got to be cognizant of what you already have."
That sounds like not to look for an offensive lineman early, unless there's a major-league tumble down the draft board. But, who knows?
"We like all three of those young guys we took, and we think they all could develop and grow," Tobin said of last year's crop. "We think we're going to have a good starting five. There'll be some competition there. And then we think we have really good backups that can come in the game and have proven come in the game and provide winning football for us. So, we're excited about the group. We're excited about those three that we drafted last year. We're excited about (Isaiah) Prince and the development he made this year. I really like the way the offensive line is coming together."
Wide receiver depth is another need, but Tobin sounded like they weren't going there early.
Not with Ja'Marr Chase coming off the greatest rookie receiver season ever, Tee Higgins coming off the best first two seasons by a Bengals receiver next to only A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd 12 catches away from becoming the seventh Bengal with 400 receptions. Tobin thinks they're just fine and isn't bracing for the new receiver deals just yet.
"We've got guys in the building who are signed up for multiple years that we feel really good about. I think we'll continue that," Tobin said. "That's a position that we won't say we're not going to do something at any draft. I mean, when you have eight picks, it's hard to go through a draft without hitting each position.
"And, that's a position that we could hit again. And we've found the guys that become really good starters in this league late in the draft, like Marvin Jones and so forth. So if there's a Marvin Jones available to us at a later round, great we'll take him. It's a position that we always track."
Note: California wide receiver Marvin Lewis Jones was taken with the fifth pick from the bottom of the 2012 fifth round with the draft choice they got from New England for Chad Johnson.
Other Tobin observations:
_Although the Bengals consulted with quarterback Joe Burrow last year before they took his LSU teammate Chase with the fifth pick, don't look for them to make Burrow an area scout any time soon.
"It's a little less predictable and I don't think Joe has the time, desire or need to grade 400 prospects like all of our scouts," Tobin said. "We value Joe's opinion. But we lean on our scouting department and our coaching staff for the draft."
_This could be the looks-like-Trent-Taylor -is-safe draft. The Bengals struggled to find a consistent punt returner last season and when they turned to practice squad wide receiver Trent Taylor for the Dec. 19 win in Denver and the rest of the way, they were rewarded with a flawless catcher who averaged a cautious 7.4 yards per return. The experiment of converting undrafted Kansas kick ace Pookah Williams, Jr., to receiving punts, which he had never done, was a chore.
Of course, they're looking. But …
"We value the ball. Especially with our current team. We want the ball. We want our offense, after the play is over, to be running on to the field," Tobin said. "If we can score, that's a bonus. If we can flip field position, that's a bonus. We believe in our offense. We want the ball. So that's the first priority with the punt return team.
"Whatever they can get beyond that, that's great," Tobin said. "I would say you wouldn't feel as good about it if he had no experience. You might believe he could but you're not going to know until you get him in your building. It is a steep climb."
_For the first time since the pre-COVID draft of 2019, Tobin and his scouts conducted business normally this year with campus visits and hosting the NFL-mandated 30 prospects at Paul Brown Stadium. But they did get one valuable tool from the COVID era.
"We do maybe a little more Zoom interviews with guys now that everybody in our building is comfortable with that technology," Tobin said. So you can get a really good interview with a guy, spend an hour with him on a Zoom, have him talk football, maybe share video over the Zoom. So there's some technology components that we've been able to take advantage of and have used to get to know the kids a little more than maybe we otherwise would have."
_They may not be using the Bengals.com Media Mock Draft, but, like everyone else in America this time of year, the draft room does a mock draft.
"It's always kind of a worst case scenario, because everyone in the room that gets to pick picks the ones we like," Tobin said. "You end up with nobody you like in our mock drafts, because we've taken them all before we pick. It's almost like a worst case scenario for us. If you feel good about who we end up with in that exercise you know you're going to come out of the draft feeling pretty good."