Technically speaking, the 2022 NFL Combine opened yesterday – Tuesday, March 1st. Bengals Head Coach Zac Taylor and Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin both spoke to the press in Indianapolis, as did head coaches and front office representatives from every other team. Like far more of their peers than not, neither Taylor nor Tobin said anything particularly newsworthy. Their quarterback wasn’t the subject of persistent trade rumors or releasing curious statements on Twitter via their agent, after all. Those stories dominated the day because quarterback controversy always does, and there’s little to actually discuss about the Combine yet. The best (and only) news for the Bengals from Tuesday is that there wasn’t any news.
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Rather, the Bengals head into the NFL Combine with one of the best and least-nebulous quarterback situations in the league. Joe Burrow won the AP NFL Comeback Player of the Year award after ending his rookie season on IR. A week after becoming the first Bengals quarterback to win a playoff game since 1991, he became the first quarterback in NFL history to endure 9 sacks and still win a playoff game. He nearly led the Bengals to victory in Super Bowl LVI despite becoming the first quarterback since Roger Staubach in 1976 to endure 7 sacks in the big game. It was an improbable, yet ultimately fitting end to a season that saw Burrow sacked a total of 70 times before that final 20-23 loss to the Rams.
Fortunately, despite that, the Bengals won’t have to spend the Combine shopping for another quarterback. Finding one that’ll play as well as Burrow, as early, looks to be impossible. That’s true for every team in the 2022 NFL Draft, let alone the one with the 31st pick. Finding enough help on the offensive line to not give up another 70 sacks, on the contrary, seems doable.
How Will First-Round Offensive Linemen Test?
At this moment, mock drafts around the Internet will tell you that a handful of offensive tackles – specifically Evan Neal from Alabama, Ikem Ekwonu from N.C. State, and Charles Cross from Mississippi State – are going near the top of the first round. Probably in the top ten picks; perhaps even first overall. Drafting any of those three tackles is a pipe dream for Bengals fans if those projections hold up, but what if they don’t? Every year, stock in otherwise highly-regarded prospects tumbles in the wake of the Combine. Sometimes it’s poor athletic testing, but more often it’s a result of bad interviews or medical testing. This is the first of very few chances teams get to be hands-on with most prospects, and a bad first impression is a powerful thing.
Still, there’s other qualified prospects at offensive tackle that the Bengals are eminently likelier to be able to pick. Several draft analysts, from Zack Patraw at SI to Thor Nystrom at NBC Sports Edge to the NFL’s own Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks, have all connected the Bengals’ pick at 31 and Bernhard Raimann from Central Michigan. The same mocks all have Trevor Penning from Northern Iowa going earlier in the first round, while Tyler Smith from Tulsa and Daniel Faalele from Minnesota fall to nearby picks.
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None of these tackles – even the three projected to go much earlier – are perfect prospects. For all of Raimann’s merits, he’s a special conundrum as a prospect. He’s started 18 games at offensive tackle since being recruited by CMU as a tight end. His tools are elite, and his ceiling is believed to be high. He’ll also be 25 years old in September, and his draft profiles mention these things more than what he is as a product right now.
It’s unlikely the Bengals draft Raimann in the first round if they don’t believe he can be a blue-chip player from (essentially) his first NFL snap. He’ll need to blow them away in interviews and athletic testing to inspire that kind of confidence.
What About Other Positions?
It’s easy to assume, even ahead of free agency, that the Bengals will draft an offensive lineman early. Completely overhauling an offensive line in free agency is hard, expensive, and dependent on other teams not retaining their own quality offensive linemen. The offensive line prospects in the draft are relatively abundant, and the team’s other needs are relatively few. Offensively, the only other position that might merit a pick is tight end, and that’s only in the event that C.J. Uzomah isn’t re-signed. Between Uzomah’s breakout 2021 campaign and their own abundant cap space, the Bengals have no motive to make that a problem.
Defensively, there’s a few more possibilities. The last defensive player the Bengals picked in the first round was cornerback William Jackson III in 2016. Before him, it was cornerback Darqueze Dennard in 2014; before him, it was cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick in 2012. Tobin presided over the team’s front office for all of these picks, and he’s currently presiding over a cornerback room with little in place beyond Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton. Perhaps knowing this, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. had the Bengals taking cornerback Kyler Gordon from Washington in the first round.
More than other positions, draft stock for cornerbacks can be easily swayed by numbers at the Combine. Speed – down the field, in and out of breaks, from one direction seamlessly to another – is paramount at that position. If Gordon doesn’t run fast enough in Indianapolis, the Bengals might be drafting him in the third round. By the same token, several cornerbacks might be reasonable picks at 31 if the Combine goes their way. Two among them are Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant – names that Cincinnati fans might recognize from their College Football Playoff team.
What About Beyond the First Round?
While it’s hard to envision the 31st pick addressing anything other than the offensive line or cornerback groups, there’s other positions that stick out as lesser needs. Jessie Bates III isn’t hitting the market barring some unexpected catastrophic failure, but the Bengals might want another safety after Ricardo Allen announced his retirement. Similarly, defensive tackles B.J. Hill and Larry Ogunjobi are both set to hit the market. Re-signing both might be unnecessary, but the Bengals have no reason to not re-sign one of them. In the absence of the other, they can look for a developmental interior pass rusher in the draft’s later rounds.
Offensively, the Bengals could easily look at tight end regardless of whether they retain Uzomah. Drew Sample is entering a contract year and the position group beyond the two of them is uncharted territory. Top prospects like Trey McBride from Colorado State might come off the board around the Bengals’ pick at 63rd overall.
For any players picked in this range or beyond it, the Combine is important. Developmental prospects are often selected for particular physical traits – they might only see immediate playing time on special teams while they pick up the technical skills to play their positions at a professional level. For interior pass rushers especially, testing thresholds for height, weight, strength, and explosiveness are all vitally important.
– Andy Hammel is the Managing Editor for the Bengals at Full Press Coverage. Follow @Andy_Hammel
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