The Cincinnati Bengals have made surprise picks in the first round of the NFL Draft the last two years, taking tight end Tyler Eifert 21st in 2013 and cornerback Darqueze Dennard 24th last year.
But don’t expect that to be the case next month.
Outside of picking a quarterback – which has less chance of happening than team owner Mike Brown flying a remote-controlled blimp and dropping $100 bills into the seats during the home opener – every position is in play in the first round after the Bengals addressed their biggest needs in free agency.
The team added experience to the young linebacker corps with the signing of A.J. Hawk, a Super Bowl-winning veteran who will take some of the sting out of not having Vontaze Burfict if the Pro Bowler is unable to recover from microfracture surgery.
The Bengals also shored up the defensive line, which was their biggest weakness last year. And they did so in best-case fashion by bringing back defensive end Michael Johnson, who knows the system and locker room as well as anyone after playing five years before spending 2014 in Tampa Bay. The Bengals also brought back defensive tackle Pat Sims, another former player who spent his first five years in Cincinnati.
And they re-signed their own key pieces who were free agents, including guard Clint Boling, tackle Eric Winston, linebacker Rey Maualuga, kicker Mike Nugent and defensive tackle Devon Still.
With seemingly every option on the table, a lot will depend on what happens with the 20 picks ahead of the Bengals.
The most likely scenario has the team taking a tackle from the deep pool of first-round talent available this year.
Even though the top three tackles on the current roster – Andrew Whitworth, Andre Smith and Eric Winston – all played at a high level last year, age and wear are catching up to them.
Whitworth (136 games) and Winston (128) games are entering their 10th seasons, while Smith (68) is heading into his seventh.
Drafting a tackle in the first round not only restocks the position for the future, it gives the team a backup capable of stepping in right away in the event of an injury or two.
There could be as many five tackles taken in the first round, and three could be off the board by the time the Bengals pick. Unlike past years when there was more of a consensus on which tackle would be the first one selected, this year features a more balanced group.
One of these five certainly will be available at 21 – Iowa’s Brandon Scherff, Stanford’s Andrus Peat, Miami’s Ereck Flowers, Pittsburgh’s T.J. Clemmings and LSU’s La’el Collins.
The Bengals also are expected to go after a wide receiver who can return kicks and punts and a safety in the early rounds. If the right guy is still available when they go on the clock, they could go in either of those directions with their first pick as well, although the second or third round seems more likely for a receiver.
And even with the addition of Johnson, an edge rusher — there are plenty of defensive ends and outside linebackers available — wouldn’t be a surprise.
Nothing will be this year.