Cincinnati Bengals Draft Needs

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David Wellman from Stripe Hype and Fan-Sided Blogs weighs in on who the Bengals should be looking at in the upcoming 2009 NFL Draft.

As one might expect of a team that finished last season 4-11-1, the Cincinnati Bengals are in need of upgrades pretty much across the board. The only exception is quarterback, where a healthy Carson Palmer is by all reports set to return next fall. Here’s a unit-by-unit look.

Offense: The Bengals’ weakest unit is the offensive line. Left tackle Levi Jones hasn’t been completely healthy since early in the 2006 season, right tackle Stacy Andrews tore his ACL in the second-to-last game of 2008 and is a free agent in March, and center Eric Ghiacuic, who consistently struggled against top-tier defensive linemen, isn’t expected to return. The Bengals do have tackle Anthony Collins, a highly regarded junior they stole in the fourth round of the ’08 draft, as well as tackle Andrew Whitworth, a second-round pick in 2006 who has been playing at left guard, so there are some tackle options in-house. Nonetheless, OT is a very strong possibility in the first, where the Bengals have the 6th overall selection. At center, Ghaicuic’s backup is converted guard Dan Santucci, a seventh-round pick in 2007, so a center in the second or third round is a strong possibility as well.

A number of mock drafts have projected a running back or wide receiver to the Bengals in the first round, but at this point it’s impossible to tell what those positions will look like come draft day. Cincinnati is very high on RB Cedric Benson and has made re-signing him this offseason a priority. Likewise, the Bengals also want to re-sign WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh and are said to be interested in moving fellow wideout Chad Johnson. Houshmandzadeh is a candidate for the franchise tag if a long-term deal can’t be worked out. Depending on how things play out, running back and/or wide receiver could be addressed as high as the first round, though most Bengals fan would view this as a grave miscalculation. With the Bengals’ abysmal offensive line unable to either run-block or protect the QB, any upgrades at RB or WR would be superfluous. A reincarnated Jim Brown couldn’t make much headway behind the line as currently constituted, and even the best wideout can’t help much when the QB gets gets planted every play.

The Bengals do not look to be in the market for a tight end after having signed Ben Utecht away from the Colts and drafting Villanova project Matt Sherry in the sixth round last year. However, the Bengals are very much in need of a fullback. Starter Jeremi Johnson, a fourth-round pick back in 2003, struggled with weight issues throughout his career, and last August showed up at training camp grossly overweight. He was initially put on the physically unable to perform list, but then proceeded to hurt his knee during camp and was placed on injured reserve. He was subsequently released during the season. Johnson’s absence played a significant role in both the poor run game as well as the poor pass protection, as Cincinnati was forced to rely on converted TE Daniel Coats. If the Bengals don’t sign a free agent FB, that becomes an option as early as the fourth round.

Defense: If fixing the offensive line is job 1 for the Bengals this offseason, fixing the pass rush is job 1a. The Bengals had just 17 sacks last season, tied with the Browns for second-fewest in the league. The team has invested heavily in the defense in the draft over the past four years with four straight first round selections dedicated to that side of the ball. The attention finally began to pay off in 2008, when the Bengals’ defense finished 12th overall. A disruptive defensive tackle like B.J. Raji, whom the team’s coaching staff saw up close at the Senior Bowl or defensive end such as Brian Orapko are both legitimate options in the first round. DT may be the slightly more attractive of the two. The Bengals coveted Sedrick Ellis last year but were outmaneuvered by New Orleans and forced to settle for Pat Sims (who had a solid rookie campaign) in the third. And the team already has about $60 million invested in two current defensive ends, Antwan Odom and Robert Geathers, plus former third-round pick Frostee Rucker in reserve.

Last year, the Bengals took USC linebacker Keith Rivers in the first round and installed him as the starter on the weak side. Rivers was having a very good rookie year until getting knocked out with a busted jaw. Cincinnati will almost certainly look to bolster the linebacking corps further, perhaps as early as the first round. Rey Maualuga would be an upgrade over Dhani Jones in the middle, as Aaron Curry would be over former CFL DE Rashad Jeanty on the strong side. Both those current Bengals starters are serviceable on the field and good characters in the locker room, but they aren’t keeping any offensive coordinators around the league up at night.

Cornerback is a slim possibility in the first. The Bengals took first-round corners Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall back-to-back in 2006 and 2007. Joseph has been dogged by injuries and hands of stone — just five picks on 48 passes defensed — while Hall is fine against Nos. 2 and 3 receivers, but can be burned by elite wideouts. The team’s No. 3 corner is David Jones, a fifth-round pick by the Saints in 2007. The Bengals are likely set at safety, especially if free agent Chris Crocker returns.

Special teams: Special teams could be very much in the mix come draft day. Incumbent kicker Shayne Graham is a free agent in March, and so far there have been no talks between his agent and the Bengals. The team and Graham tried to reach an extension prior to the 2008 season but couldn’t come to an agreement. Cincinnati was forced to match a rich offer from Jacksonville for Graham several years ago when Shayne was a restricted free agent, so his price tag for another tour of duty may simply be too high for the budget-conscious Bengals.

Punter is also up for grabs. The Bengals extended their current punter Kyle Larson last offseason, despite an iffy 2007 outing, and Larson was among the worst in the league in 2008. Special teams coach Darrin Simmons has already said that competition will be brought in at the position, and many Bengals fans would be overjoyed to see the team use a day 2 pick on a local product, University of Cincinnati standout Kevin Huber.