The draft this year marks 28th draft I've watched like a hawk. I still recall the first time I ever became fascinated with the draft: 1990. My team, the Bengals, were coming off a wretched 8-8 season in which they hoped to get back to the Super Bowl (yeah, I know. They're still waiting . . . As am I). That year they drafted James Francis, a senior outside linebacker from Baylor. I was a huge fan of the middle linebacker from Michigan State, Percy Snow.
When we got to school on Monday, I lamented to my friend, Harry, that I wished the Bengals would've been able to draft Snow. He said, "They could have."
I was shocked. I thought they had to settle for Francis because Snow was off the board already. I mean I had never even heard of James Francis before, yet the Bengals drafted him. Well, I wasn't quite up on my scouting skills all those years ago. That's what you get for living in Big Ten country and being relegated to watching the Big Ten games on channel 8 or having to watch Notre Dame on Ch. 11 (my mom's favorite team).
Francis went on to have a solid career with the Bengals, despite my reservations about them drafting him with the tenth overall pick. Snow, on the other hand, never made an impact with the Chiefs and wasn't long for the league.
In the second round that year, the Bengals drafted Harold Green out of South Carolina. He was initially used as a fullback since Cincy was loaded at tailback way back then (the ageless James Brook was coming off a huge year and they had just drafted Eric Ball the year before in the second round and the year before that they had taken Ickey Woods who set the league on fire in 1988, but he was coming off a blown out knee). Green became a start two years later, making his only Pro Bowl.
In the third round, the Bengals finally drafted a linebacker I knew: Bernard Clarke out of Miami. He was part of that bad boy Miami defense, and that was good enough for me. I had visions of the Bengals having a line backer corps that would rival New Orlean's Dome Patrol. Especially when the following year, they'd draft Alfred Williams, the sack master out of Colorado, to play outside linebacker across from Francis.
But that never happened. Francis had his best year his rookie year. Clarke was vastly overrated coming out of Miami and was cut his second year in the league while Williams did notch 10 sacks for the Bengals but he took the money when he could and ran to Denver where he'd go on to win a Super Bowl.
Since then, the Bengals have had some of the worst picks in league history (Akili Smith and Cedric Ogbuehi) some of the worst luck with picks (Ki Jana Carter, Kenny Irons, Charles Fisher, Tyler Eifert) and some of the best (Willie Anderson, Justin Smith, Chad Johnson/ OchoCinco, Carson Palmer, AJ Green, and Andrew Whitworth).
Why do I love the draft so much?
Part of it is that hope springs eternal. Every team gets a chance to add exciting new talent to their rosters and fill needs.
Part of it is that it's fun to see all the guys I've watched in college football transition to the NFL.
Part of it is that I'm just starved for anything NFL related by now.
So here are my thoughts on the early rounds of this year's draft as it relates to my beloved (bedeviled) Bengals (Bungals)
Round One -
Need says offensive line, especially center. The last time we had any semblance of a run game was 2009 when we had a strong center and guard combo. I thought we had solved our problems in 2014 when Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard ran the ball well, but that never happened. Our center, Russell Bodine, became one of the most hated people in Bengaldom for his poor play while the tackles we drafted early in 2015, Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher have never proven to be more than below average.
So that leaves the home grown Billy Price out of OSU and James Daniels out of the NFL lineman factory of Iowa. Both have their cases - Price is a stud who started almost every game for the Buckeyes. He moved to center just this year to replace the guy the Vikings drafted out of OSU in the third round. Price was excellent. The only issue is that he tore his pectoral at the combine and will be sidelined until summer. The Bengals haven't had the best of luck with drafting injured players (see Ogbuehi) or with their top picks playing much due to injury (see 2012's Dre Kirkpatrick, 2013's Eifert, 2014's Darqueze Dennard, 2015's William Jackson III, and last year's John Ross).
Daniels could be a great pick. The Bengals have had luck with Iowa lineman, namely Mike Goff way back in 1998 and then Eric Steinbach in 2003. Both were great players. Plus, Iowa has a lot of success with NFL caliber lineman.
An outside shot could be Frank Ragnow out of Arkansas.
The Bengals have a new offensive line coach from the Cowboys, Frank Pollack. He kicked off his stint with the Cowboys by drafting Travis Frederick in the first round.
That worked out alright for Dallas.
After centre, tackle is still an issue. The Bengals traded back in the first round with Buffalo and gained their starting LT Cordy Glenn, but he has been injured the past few years and might not make the season. So drafting a new offensive tackle early (rounds one, two, or three) is a possibility. If not a necessity.
Next, after the OL, linebacker is a glaring need. I love Vontaze as much as anyone, but his stupidity has really cost the defense every year since 2013. This year he will be suspended yet again for the first four games. The Bengals don't have much (read - nothing) in the way of playmakers after him. Vinny Rey is a nice piece, but he's a situational player at best. We drafted Nick Vigil in 2016 but he has been okay. We drafted Jordan Evans last year, but he was a sixth round pick. I don't want to have him on the field to start the season. We did sign Preston Brown from the Bills, but he's an old school run stuffer in the vein of Rey Malaluaga who no one really misses. So drafting a linebacker in the first round could be a real possibility if one of the top guys slides to them.
The Bengals have tried repeatedly to draft centers and have failed. The same is true with linebackers. Hopefully, a change in coaches can alter that.
Finally, it's not a need necessarily, but I could see the Bengals nabbing a corner. They let Adam Jones go. Kirkpatrick struggled in the first year of his huge second contract. If he underperforms again, he could be in line to get cut. On the plus side, William Jackson III played brilliantly this year and should be in line to start full time. Also on the plus side, Darqueze Dennard played very well in the slot and should be in line for a contract extension this summer. So there is a whole at fourth corner and punt/kick returner.
Ener Jaire Alexander from Louisville. He was a ballhawk his junior year before getting hurt his senior year. He is brash and confident. He has good size and speed. And he is great as a returner. He could be insurance if Kirkpatrick continues to tank.
The corner pick has a couple things going for it: first, it fits the Bengals new "best player available" mantra that Duke Tobin preaches. Second, they love drafting corner. And when you have to play the Steelers and all of their weapons, that's fine by me. Third, he's coming off an injury, and the Bengals love to get value there.
If I were Tobin here are my first round options in order:
Center Billy Price, Center James Daniels, CB Jaire Alexander, G Will Hernandez (guard - this guy is a beast and would make Joe Mixon a very happy camper), ILB Rashan Evans (linebacker from Alabama. The Bengals love the SEC, and he is a playmaker who could help fill the void those first four games that Burfict will be out).
If I were Tobin here are my second round options in order:
Centers Price or Daniels (if they slide), Center Ragnow, G Hernandez (if he slides), OT (Connor Williams, Orlando Brown, Kolton Miller, Mike McGlinchey, Marinas Rankin), DT (Maurice Hurst), Edge (Arden Key, Uchenna Nwoso), tight end (Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst, Dallas Goedert), safety (Ronnie Harrison).
If any of those guys slide, I'd nab them in the third round where the Bengals have two picks.
Best case scenario -
The Bengals see a glut of quarterbacks go in the top 20. Someone (New England, perhaps) offers them their late first and a third or fourth to move up.
The Bengals move down and grab Billy Price in the late first.
In the second round the Bengals grab guard Will Hernandez.
In the third round Cincy nabs Orlando Brown to play RT and then nabs Uchenna Nwoso (an OLB/DE to help rush the passer ala last year's most productive rookie, Carl Lawson who could play a little linebacker and then rush on third down).
At the close of day two the Bengals have remade the center and hole right side of the line: Billy Price at center, Hernandez at guard, and Brown at RT. HUGE.
They add Nwoso (the type of rushers they love) to play a little OLB to help ease the loss of Burfict for the first four games.
On day three I'd love to see the Bengals add -
Mark Andrews (tight end) or Ian Thomas (Tight end). They resigned Eifert, but he is always hurt.
I could see them adding more depth to the defensive line (one of my favorite players is Arden Key out of LSU. He reminds me a lot of our own Carlos Dunlap when he was young). And, of course, they could use some help at DT to ease the double teams on Geno Atkins.