When the 2022 NFL Draft officially begins on Thursday, April 28th, the Bengals (barring a trade) won’t be on the board until the 31st overall pick. That’s the spoils of making the big game; like DJ Khaled in 2013, the Bengals are suffering from success.
Except they aren’t, particularly. As with most teams that win their conferences, the Bengals enjoy a roster with few glaring needs. The needs they did have – on the offensive line, as everyone who watched the playoffs pointed out – they addressed with prejudice in the opening days of free agency. Eli Apple hit the market and opened a need at cornerback, but quietly re-signed with the team days later. At this point, the Bengals are well-positioned to wait until the 31st pick and let the draft come to them.
As for what’ll transpire in those first 30 picks, that’s anyone’s guess. People who are paid far more than I to analyze the draft will tell you it’s wide open this year. It’s hard to find a consensus on the top five prospects available this year, let alone the top thirty.
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Still, there are some things we probably know about what’ll unfold on Thursday night.
Of the players widely predicted to go off the board before the Bengals’ pick, the majority are edge rushers, offensive tackles, cornerbacks, and receivers. While it’s hardly surprising that teams would pick players at premium positions in the first round, the depth of each group this year is impressive.
The four edge rushers – Aidan Hutchinson from Michigan, Travon Walker from Georgia, Kayvon Thibodeaux from Oregon, and Jermaine Johnson from Florida State – will leave the board in some order long before the 31st pick. The same can be said of offensive tackles Ikem Ekwonu from N.C. State, Evan Neal from Alabama, Charles Cross from Mississippi State, and Trevor Penning from Northern Iowa.
The cornerback and receiver groups are similarly loaded, but they’re bigger and less organized at the top. Teams are probably considering an average of 6-8 receivers as first-round prospects, and it’s possible that each team orders those prospects differently. It’s conceivable that the Bengals – if they chose to pick a receiver for whatever reason – could take one of the best receivers on their board and be the sixth or seventh team in the first round to do so.
That aside, who are the Bengals most likely to pick?
Zion Johnson, G, Boston College
Yes, the Bengals signed linemen Alex Cappa, Ted Karras, and La’el Collins over the offseason. Yes, they drafted guard Jackson Carman a mere offseason ago. This affords Cincinnati the flexibility to take another position in the first round, but it doesn’t mean they have to. Nor does it mean they should – least of all if Johnson falls to them.
At 6’3″ and 312 pounds, Johnson showed up to the Combine in March and put on a performance dominant enough to leave many questioning what they perceived from his tape to be athletic limitations. He led the guard group in the 3-cone drill (7.38 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.46 seconds) and finished with the second-best mark of the group in the vertical jump (32″) and broad jump (9’4″). It was a performance reminiscent of another guard from Boston College at the 2019 combine – Chris Lindstrom, who went to Atlanta as the 14th overall pick and has played up to that billing.
Still, Johnson isn’t Lindstrom – the latter entered the league with some concerns about strength, while the former led the Combine with 32 reps on the bench press. That’s the lowest number to lead the Combine since 1994 (a three-way tie between Austin Robbins, Rob Waldrop, and Bruce Walker), but the questions that raises aren’t about Johnson’s strength.
Regardless, framing Johnson as only a workout warrior is disingenuous. On the field, Johnson is already a great pass blocker with past experience as a left tackle. He projects well as a guard in any offense, with the upside to be truly special in a zone-blocking scheme. For a team like the Bengals who run a derivative of the Shanahan offense, Johnson is a plug-and-play starter.
Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa
Up until the Combine, Linderbaum wouldn’t have merited discussion with the Bengals’ first pick. The idea of him falling this far was too far-fetched to seriously consider. Unfortunately, Linderbaum didn’t work out at the Combine or at Iowa’s Pro Day after suffering a foot sprain in the Citrus Bowl. While it remains popular opinion that Linderbaum is athletic, we lack confirmation that we now have for other prospects. What we do have is confirmation that Linderbaum’s arms are short – among the shortest of any line prospect entering the league this millennium.
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Does that preclude Linderbaum from having a successful NFL career? No – one of the five players to enter the league with shorter arms, Austin Blythe, signed a 1-year deal this offseason to play his seventh year in the league in Seattle, as a center. It doesn’t delegitimize the oft-made comparison of Linderbaum as a prospect to longtime Philadelphia center Jason Kelce, and it certainly hasn’t overshadowed Linderbaum’s accomplished career as an offensive lineman at Iowa. What it has done is destabilized Linderbaum’s draft stock enough that him falling to the Bengals is conceivable.
The team has the means to answer their own questions about Linderbaum’s athleticism, if Linderbaum is willing. It’s possible they’ve seen enough and they’re willing to pull the trigger on him at 31st overall anyway. The Bengals don’t need a center, but they can take one if they still think Linderbaum is that guy.
Kyler Gordon, CB, Washington
When the dust settled on the Bengals’ early free agency spending, mock drafts quickly adjusted to their new needs. With the offensive line addressed, some analysts quickly started plugging the hole in their mocks with Kyler Gordon. Of the last six defensive players the Bengals have taken in the first round, after all, five have been cornerbacks.
In part, Gordon’s name here represents several cornerbacks who might be available – Gordon himself might not be. Behind Ahmad Gardner from Cincinnati and Derek Stingley from LSU, the pecking order is widely contested. Andrew Booth from Clemson is a consensus first-round pick, but some value Trent McDuffie from Washington more highly. The same could be said of Kaiir Elam from Florida. Others (like Roger McCreary from Auburn) would draw such consideration from some before Gordon.
Like Linderbaum, Gordon’s tape draws rave reviews about his athleticism but his Combine numbers scarcely help to contextualize it. His 40-yard dash time (4.52 seconds) was fine, but he didn’t participate in any other workouts. He participated in the vertical jump (39.5″) and broad jump (10’8″) at his Pro Day, but nothing showcasing his agility.
Still, Gordon figures to go in the first round for much the same reasons as Booth – who figures to go much higher. Both players draw criticism for their instincts, eye discipline, and generally lacking polish in aspects of their games. Their size profiles are very similar – less than half an inch apart in height, arm length, and hand size. Their athletic profiles are both regarded as stellar despite neither player offering much in terms of workout numbers. They’re both assets attacking the line of scrimmage and versatile enough to play anywhere in the secondary.
One player will be gone – rightfully – earlier in the first round. The other should be there for the Bengals.
Daxton Hill, S, Michigan
Few prospects in this draft have garnered as much attention and discussion as Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton. At 6’4″ and 220 pounds, Hamilton looked like he could do everything you’d ask from a safety at an elite level while also being bigger than everyone else at the position. He still looks like that, but some sub-par Combine workouts have people asking about his best fit in the NFL. Is he still a bigger Derwin James, or is he best as an extraordinarily souped-up linebacker?
That may or may not be a fair representation of Hamilton overall. He’ll be long gone before the Bengals are on the board either way. All that is to set up Hamilton’s contrast from Hill – a phenomenal safety on the other end of that position’s spectrum. Same ball skills, same aggressive run defense, but in a very different package.
At 6’0″ and 191 pounds, Hill lit up the combine with standout marks in the 40-yard dash (4.38 seconds), 3-cone drill (6.57 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.06 seconds). Those numbers would’ve had Hill fitting in perfectly with the cornerback group if any of them had chosen to participate in the latter two drills. As a safety, his marks in those agility drills easily led the group.
Hill spent most of his last year at Michigan in the slot, is listed on most draft databases as a safety, and will be projected by some teams as a full-time corner. Whatever the Bengals see him as, he’s an outstanding prospect at a position of need. They can afford to throw him everywhere, see where he sticks, and build around him.
Quay Walker, LB, Georgia
Do the Bengals need to spend a first round pick on a linebacker? Not exactly. The last linebacker they took so high was Keith Rivers in 2008. Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt – both Day 2 picks themselves – played fine in starting roles through the playoffs.
It’s likely that in any situation where the aforementioned four players are all off the board, the Bengals will have trade offers from teams who want to move ahead of the Lions at 32, take their choice of quarterback, and secure five to six years of contract control with the investment of the first-round pick. If those four prospects are already off the board and the quarterbacks are gone, the Bengals are probably staring down a player at a premium position they never expected to fall their way. There’s only so many ways to slice up 30 draft picks.
Nevertheless, Walker stands out as a logical pick for the team in the first couple rounds. Devin Lloyd from Utah is likely off the board by this point, and Walker is the next linebacker prospect up with a similar blend of size and athleticism. At 6’4″ and 241 pounds, Walker projects better to the Bengals’ multiple defensive scheme than his Georgia teammate Nakobe Dean – who projects purely as an off-ball defender. The Bengals frequently aligned Pratt on the line of scrimmage, especially on the end opposite from Trey Hendrickson or Sam Hubbard in odd fronts.
But why, given the choice, should the Bengals take Walker over Lloyd? Lloyd is the better player right now, but Walker is comparatively a touch faster, bigger, and nearly two years Lloyd’s junior. For a player that might have a season to sit behind Pratt before his contract expires in 2023, Walker feels like a wiser investment.
– Andy Hammel is the Managing Editor for the Bengals at Full Press Coverage. Follow @Andy_Hammel
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