Draft Preview: Bengals Likely to Make Upgrades Up Front
With the NFL Draft scheduled to begin on Thursday, the Cincinnati Bengals will add players that are brand new to the team, which has not been a theme for them during this offseason. The Bengals have stayed true to their best-player-available draft approach in recent years with solid results, but a number of deficiencies were exposed last season and team needs might now be too great to ignore in this draft.
The most glaring drop-off from previous seasons was that of the pass rush. Cincinnati finished last in sacks after a string of dominating campaigns. The team took on the philosophy that the losses of Pat Sims and Michael Johnson in previous seasons were the reason for the defensive line's decline in pass rush last season and signed both of them back. Now that the band is back together and Geno Atkins is expected to be fully healthy and return to Pro Bowl form, the chance of drafting more beef up front on defense is minimal.
Living in the past has its pitfalls, though. Having all of the pieces back from Mike Zimmer's defense is not guaranteed to work without actually having Mike Zimmer calling the shots. Johnson was a major letdown for Tampa Bay who signed him to big money just a year ago. Sims was serviceable in Oakland but didn't fit the scheme or rotation with the Raiders nearly as well as he had in Cincinnati.
One pass rusher that might gain their attention, though, is Danielle Hunter from LSU. He is tall (6'5'') which is a trait the Bengals covet on their line. He is described as a physical freak with huge upside, but is still a very raw player who hasn't learned to use his athletic gifts to dominate like he can. Scouts think he must be extremely well-coached to maximize his potential. Similar things were said about defensive ends Margus Hunt and Will Clarke who Cincinnati drafted in subsequent years. With the passing game become ever more prominent in today's game, pass rushers have become the premium players on defense. Loading up on them makes sense, but seeing more tangible results than what the Bengals saw last year is necessary to justify these high-pick projects that are slowly, if ever, panning out.
A more likely area Cincinnati will address is along the offensive line. The venerable Andrew Whitworth is the focus on the decision to add a higher draft pick to the group. Whitworth enters his tenth professional season and has been a terrific asset for coach Marvin Lewis as a leader and as a lineman. He can play tackle or guard at an all-pro level, he stays largely healthy and he doesn't take any crap from his opposition. Ten years is a long time in the NFL, though, and we've all seen linemen go south quickly once their large bodies begin to break down (think Levi Jones).
On the other side of the line is Andre Smith who is coming off of a shortened season from a torn triceps and is a free agent to be. As the swing tackle, the team brought back Eric Winston who is also entering his tenth season and was picked up out of desperation once Smith was hurt.
That's a lot of age and injury at the tackle position and adding depth to a crucial spot along the line points to an overall sensible move. The Bengals like certain attributes in their linemen. They like versatile players who can be moved around the line when situations dictate they do so. They like knee benders who are flexible and relatively injury-free.
This year, Ereck Flowers from Miami fits that mold. He's big (6'6'', 330), gets low to the ground on run blocks, has a competitive and mean streak and has played both tackle positions. He is more of a run blocker than a pass protector and needs a lot of technique improvement, but those were similar things said about Smith when he was drafted. Also, line coach Paul Alexander is one of the best in the business and is pretty reliable for shaping up young prospects.
Perhaps a more exciting possibility is that of the Bengals adding an offensive weapon for quarterback Andy Dalton to grow comfortable with. By the Wild Card game last year, the arsenal of pass catchers had been reduced to the very bare minimum thanks to multiple injuries to the group. Wide receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert are expected to be in top form by September, and the exciting one-two rushing punch of Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill remain in tact, but that still may not be enough to last a full season and beyond.
The trend in the NFL has become bigger, stronger receivers that are inherit mismatches for defenders in coverage. The tight end/wide receiver hybrid is the future, not dissimilar to Eifert. The Bengals, perhaps wisely, concluded the Jermaine Gresham experiment by showing little to no interest in bringing back the maligned tight end who now apparently has significant back issues. Rather than adding a traditional tight end to the mix, why not roll the dice on a hybrid?
Michigan's Devin Funchess is a player firmly in that gray area between receiver and tight end. He was used in both spots in college and reportedly excels in intermediate routes which suits Dalton and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson best. With Funchess, Eifert and Mohamed Sanu in the mix, the offensive would have three strong pass catchers who could expand the screen game and add pressure to defenses in the red zone.
There are scores of Bengals fans would like to see a quarterback drafted in the higher rounds as a replacement for Dalton, but it is such a long shot that the organization would compromise the Red Rifle's confidence that the possibility of them selecting a QB is secondary at best. They did work out UCLA's Brett Hundley which raised a few eyebrows and piqued curiosities, but actually drafting him with one of their first two picks would be a major shocker.
The window of opportunity for the current group seems more closed than open as we enter year five of the Dalton-era, and the team clinging to its past successes rather than looking ahead is a legitimate concern many Bengals fans harbor about their team. The selections made this offseason should indicate if the organization is looking to rebuild certain spots right away, or if they will simply compliment their nucleus and ride out the status quo with a group they are still convinced can win now.
Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor/Photo: NFL.com