Months of speculation, preparation, anticipation and misinformation will finally, mercifully come to an end Thursday with the first round of the NFL Draft.
The Cincinnati Bengals are expected to use the 24th pick on a cornerback. Or a quarterback. Or a linebacker. Or a defensive end.
Even Bengals brass may not know for sure which direction the team wants to go until the 23rd pick of the draft is tugging on a new hat and squeezing the right hand of Commissioner Roger Goodell.
There are no glaring weaknesses on the roster, nor are there any position groups that can’t be improved. So all options are open.
By evaluating current need, past drafts and the available pool of players, here’s a look at why or why not the team may be targeting certain positions:
The top four cornerbacks on the Bengals roster were first-round picks, and the average age of the top three is 31. Plus one of them, Leon Hall, is coming back from his second Achilles injury in three years.
And as head coach Marvin Lewis pointed out, it’s a demanding position that needs to be stocked with top-tier talent.
“Quarterback and cornerback are the toughest positions to play in the league, and if you’re not good enough there, everyone else suffers,” he said. “And there’s no way to mask it. It takes certain rare ability to play those two spots. To play cornerback on defense, to run with a guy that can be bigger than you, can be faster than you, knows where he’s going, and you’ve got to run with him, and you’ve got to defend him and you can’t touch him.
“Other than that, it’s an easy job,” Lewis laughed. “When everybody sees that guy catch a ball on you, everyone looks at you even though somebody else probably didn’t do their job as well as they needed to. But everybody looks at you. That’s a tough position. I’ve been fortunate in the league to be around a bunch of good corners, and most of them came in the first round.”
Add in the fact that this is a deep draft for corners, with as many as five (Michigan State’s Darqueze Denard, Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller, Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert, TCU’s Jason Verrett and Ohio State’s Bradley Roby) expected to go in the first round, it’s a position the Bengals could still target even if a few of the top ones are gone by the time they are on the clock.
As the NFL continues to evolve into more of a passing league, the safety position is growing in importance, with the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks being Exhibit A.
That fact alone tends to negate history, which shows the Bengals have never drafted a safety in the first round, although they have a first-rounder on their roster in Reggie Nelson (Jacksonville).
The team did take Shawn Williams in the third round last year, which was the earliest they had picked a safety since drafting Madieu Williams in the second round in 2004. And Lewis said he has put a high value on safeties long before it became a league trend.
“I’ve been that way philosophically for a while,” he said. “It’s to my upbringing in the NFL. We’ve been that way since I’ve been here, and the trend will continue that way because the trend in college football is that way.
“These guys are becoming more of big corners with the style of coverage, the style of offense and the things that people are playing,” he continued. “The game is evolving that way a little bit more.”
But with only two safeties (Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor) thought to be worthy of a first-round pick, the option could be off the table when it’s time for the Bengals to pick.
The fans’ frustration with Andy Dalton continues to build, but the coaches continue to voice support.
The team may draft a quarterback at some point this weekend. In fact, it’s likely. But to do so in the first round wouldn’t make sense.
First-round picks are expected to contribute right away, and that clearly would not be the case with a quarterback.
“We don’t have enough reps,” Lewis said. “You can’t give that guy enough opportunities to do what he needs to do to make a fair comparison. We’re not going to take reps away from Andy Dalton to give somebody else another opportunity to do that.
“It’s only fair to the rest of the football team that if I’m going to put you in place as the quarterback or competing quarterback, that I give you enough reps to be good enough for the football team to win with you, and I think that’s important,” he added.
“It’s worked pretty well for us, that I haven’t had that kind of confusion. This football team has known who their quarterback is going to be and the leader of it, and it’s made us better for that because they can get behind and rally behind him.”
The Bengals don’t have to look outside their own locker room to know there is much talent available after the draft as there is during it, as six of the 10 linebackers on the roster are undrafted free agents.
Cincinnati has selected a linebacker in the first round once in the last 15 drafts (Keith Rivers, 2008) and that certainly didn’t work out the way they had hoped.
The team has had moderate to great success with its first-round tackles over the years (Andre Smith, Levi Jones, Willie Anderson, Anthony Munoz), and it’s the thinnest position on the roster.
But there should be three tackles taken before the Bengals go on the clock, and there could be as many as four or five. If that’s the case, it’s unlikely the Bengals would continue the run.
It’s not a big need position, but it’s a group stocked with tremendous athleticism, so if the Bengals elect to go the route of “best available athlete,” this could be where they look.
Like safeties, edge rushers are becoming more important as defenses have to find ways to slow down passing attacks.