For most of the 2021 season, it felt like wherever the Cincinnati Bengals ended up in the draft order, they’d be using their first-round pick as an investment to upgrade their offensive line. Well, since the regular season ended with the Bengals coming just one win short of the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy, they began free agency hot with three quick moves to enhance the O-line already.
Now that they’ve gotten two more interior linemen and a right tackle, what could and should Cincinnati do with the 31st overall pick?
KEEP REINFORCING THAT O-LINE
It can never hurt to keep looking to upgrade an offensive line, especially one as bad as the Bengals was in 2021. It was by far the most glaring weak spot for the team all season after failing to address it in the first round of last year’s draft and was especially noticeable during Cincinnati’s postseason run. Joe Burrow was sacked 19 times in the playoffs, which was the most in NFL history.
The Bengals moved quickly to address that weak spot, bringing in big upgrades to the interior on the very first day of free agency in center/left guard Ted Karras and right guard Alex Cappa. More recently, they took advantage of the Cowboys’ need for cap space by signing a recently released right tackle out of Dallas, La’el Collins.
As it stands now, that’s already a major facelift for one of the league’s worst units. Karras’ versatility allows Cincinnati to slot him in at center or guard and either move Jackson Carman to left guard or continue rolling with Trey Hopkins at center. If the Bengals don’t see either of those options as an ideal situation, they could add another piece in the draft.
Texas A&M’s Kenyon Green and Boston College’s Zion Johnson are some guys on the interior that might fall to 31. Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum too, if they’re really lucky. On the outside, they’re more in the range of snagging Minnesota’s Daniel Faalele or Central Michigan’s Bernhard Raimann than guys like Evan Neal, Ikem Ekwonu or Trevor Penning.
HELP IN THE SECONDARY
Some of the other recent moves by Cincinnati were the decisions to bring back cornerback Eli Apple on a one-year deal and release fellow cornerback Trae Waynes. Bringing back Apple is a solid move for now. He was a serviceable option on defense opposite Chidobe Awuzie, but besides trolling Giants and Saints fans on the internet and a tipped pass in the Divisional Round, he didn’t contribute much during the 2021 season.
Luckily for the Bengals, there’s a lot of good talent at cornerback in the 2022 draft class. Unfortunately for them, most of the top names—Sauce Gardner, Andrew Booth Jr. and Derek Stingley Jr.—will likely be off the table by the time they’re on the clock.
That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be anyone still left at the position worth drafting. Florida’s Kaiir Elam, Washington’s Kyler Gordon and Auburn’s Roger McCreary would all be solid options at 31 if available. Adding a talented cornerback in the draft would only further improve a secondary that already got some nice upgrades last offseason.
ADD TO THE PASS RUSH
You know what’s better than two great edge rushers? Three great edge rushers.
The Bengals had one of the best signings of 2021’s free agency by bringing in pass rusher Trey Hendrickson. The former Saint had a career-best 14.0 sacks and three forced fumbles en route to his first Pro Bowl selection in 2021. Sam Hubbard, rushing opposite Hendrickson, looked great in his first year after signing a four-year contract extension as well, finishing with 7.5 sacks and a forced fumble last season.
Adding another first-round talent at edge rusher would immediately make Cincinnati’s pass rush one of the best in the NFL. While they certainly will not be in the running for Aidan Hutchinson or Kayvon Thibodeaux, Michigan’s David Ojabo is a possibility after the Achilles injury he suffered during Michigan Pro Day has his draft stock falling. Other names that might be available include Minnesota’s Boye Mafe and San Diego State’s Cameron Thomas.
Adding an edge rusher may be the least likely outcome here given the team’s more pressing needs elsewhere. But if Ojabo falls to the very back end of the first round or if the Bengals fall in love with another edge rusher before April 28, that option may be too good to pass up.