CINCINNATI — It’s commonly understood that NFL teams cannot be accurately “graded” in their drafting of a particular class until at least two and usually three years down the road.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a sense of the potential of a certain draft class, or more importantly the status and direction of the franchise.
And what the Bengals were able to do in a period of three days this weekend underscores how the organization’s culture has undergone a seismic shift in reputation, externally and internally.
The Bengals are now roster-building like championship organizations have done for decades. It starts with having the right coaching staff that is in tune with the scouting department. Check. It continues with having the right franchise quarterback to lead your offense and project an expectation of winning championships. Check.
It continues with identifying weaknesses and aggressively looking to correct them. Check. The Bengals over the last two off-seasons have rebuilt the entire offensive line and now have depth along the line of protection for Joe Burrow that they didn’t have the last two seasons when inconsistent play and injuries depleted the front.
The reason the Bengals enter 2023 as one of the top three favorites to win Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas is because they arguably have the best all-around roster in the NFL.
One of the reasons Zac Taylor is wearing a smile every time he walks into the building is that he knows the coaching staff and front office are in lockstep with how to put the pieces together.
Even the smallest details like addressing an issue that cost them the chance to make it back to the Super Bowl has been addressed in the drafting of a punter – Michigan’s Brad Robbins – that Darrin Simmons plans on using to challenge or likely replace Drue Chrisman.
Every Bengal fan should savor how the franchise is approaching every single move. The moves seem to be done with both an eye on strengthening and deepening an already-championship roster while building for a future that naturally includes attrition to free agency.
Every move is not going to work out but the Bengals have placed themselves in the best position with the best odds.
The Bengals have three major roster questions that will need answering in the coming months:
Zac Taylor reiterated his support of Joe Mixon as his lead running back as long as he’s on the roster. It’s still practically impossible to imagine the Bengals paying Mixon $12.8 million this season. But the team lost Samaje Perine and drafted only Chase Brown in the fifth round. Don’t sleep on Trayveon Williams as someone the team could lean on, even if Mixon is still on the roster come September.
Jonah Williams and La’el Collins are rehabbing from significant surgeries, leaving Jackson Carman as the leader in the clubhouse to win the job. This was the case last summer at left guard before rookie Cordell Volson came on in the second preseason game in New York and won the job. Carman looked much better at tackle late in the season and played at a passable level in the playoffs. Switching over to right tackle might work out well for Carman and the Bengals, with Alex Cappa at right guard, at least until either Williams or Collins can make it back.
So much hinges on Chido Awuzie returning as the No. 1 corner. He was playing at an All-Pro level before the Halloween knee injury. Cam Taylor-Britt had his growing pains but he showed he’s fast and can tackle, two prerequisites for any NFL corner. Mike Hilton is a rock at the nickel corner. Dax Hill will get his chance to start at free safety in his second year and Nick Scott will start at the other safety spot as the secondary absorbs the free agent losses of Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell. The drafting of corner DJ Turner II and safety Jordan Battle add needed depth and their draft slots indicate the Bengals value them as potential contributors immediately.
The Joe Burrow extension will take care of itself. The Bengals and Burrow have waited for the contract extensions of Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson to play out, further crystalizing what an extension with Cincinnati’s most famous person will look like.
Everything the Bengals are doing on the field right now is spot on. And the draft only underscores this.
“I just think we’ve done a good job of adding the guys, whether it be in free agency or developing the roster the way it’s been, to where you feel like you’ve got all of your bases covered so now you can add guys that fits you sometimes in special teams’ roles initially before they contribute in other areas,” Zac Taylor said. “That’s a great way to develop guys is to get them in the mix in special teams as they start to grow more comfortable on offense and defense before their role expands there.
“A lot of great players that have come through here started in those roles and expanded to roles starting on offense or defense. That’s been a luxury for us to have with how the roster is built. We were able to add guys that give us value in a lot of different areas. Special teams I feel was hit in a very positive way in this draft and that’s good for the makeup of our team.”
Character is a word that often times gets tossed around too casually when assessing draft prospects. The more relevant and important trait is a rookie’s ability to assimilate, process and get up to speed quickly, starting with rookie mini-camp in a couple of weeks.
“I think it gives them their best chance to survive here,” Taylor told me. “There’s so much talent here in the building, so if you stick out in a poor way, it’s going to be tough to make the team and contribute. These guys all fit in, these guys all check those boxes. They’re all going to have a chance to compete. We’ll welcome everybody into the locker room, regardless of who it is, but I think these guys are really going to fit in well with the different position groups that they’re apart of.”
There are three branches of administration of the Bengals – ownership, personnel and coaching – and never in their 58 years have all three been in such synchronization.
Mike Brown, Katie and Troy Blackburn and their two daughters lead the administration and handle all the business. Director of player personnel Duke Tobin, college scouting director Mike Potts and pro scouting director Steve Radicevic handle all the personnel and Zac Taylor has amassed a coaching staff that is the envy of most NFL teams right now.
“I think that the job that Duke, Mike, and all the scouts — Steve, Andrew, Christian and Trey … the job that they do of lining up our draft board after conversations they’ve had with us is spectacular. They’re really close (on the ratings) as the draft goes down,” Darrin Simmons said. “We’re very close on all the positions. The one thing I don’t think we’ve done over the course of the last three, four, five drafts is that we haven’t really had to reach a lot.
“They’ve drafted based on the grades they’ve had, and based on what’s on the board. I think they’ve stayed very consistent. I think there are times when the boat starts to go off the river a little bit, and they pull it right back on and get it lined back up again. Sometimes cooler heads prevail. I think they’ve stuck to the draft board, and I think they’ve done a hell of a job of getting it lined up and putting the players in the proper order as they fit for us — not for everybody else and not what the league values, but how they fit for us. I think that’s been the difference.”
The last three days only added talent to a franchise that is on the brink of winning multiple Super Bowls.
Rd 1: Myles Murphy, DE, Clemson: Lou Anarumo made it abundantly clear that Murphy will come in right away and be part of the pass rush rotation that includes Sam Hubbard, Trey Hendrickson, Joseph Ossai and Cam Sample. Made a point of stressing that he has played in just about every front a defense can deploy. He’s smart and young. Bengals were thrilled he was there at 28. They should be. Immediate contributor.
Rd 2: DJ Turner II, CB, Michigan: 4.26 40-yard speed. Played with Dax Hill at Michigan. Projects as an outside corner and could step in and play if injuries crop up. Immediate contributor.
Rd 3: Jordan Battle, S, Alabama: Earned the starting safety spot for Nick Saban at Alabama as a sophomore. That alone should tell you something about his smarts and instincts. He actually played against Joe Burrow as a freshman in 2019 in his first start in college. Tons of maturity and projects as a special teams contributor in his first year with Bengals. Valuable insurance at safety.
Rd 4: Charlie Jones, WR/KR, Purdue: Was Big Ten return specialist of the year in 2021 at Iowa and decided to transfer to a pass-oriented school in Purdue. He went out and earned All-American honors as a receiver, setting school record for receiving yards (1,361) in a season. Eight 100-yard games and led FBS with 110 receptions in 2022. Can be a weapon in kick return game.
Rd 5: Chase Brown, RB, Illinois: This is the first pick where the player projects as a development project. While earning honors as one of three Doak Walker finalists recognizing top running back in college football in 2022, he has a lot of miles on the tires, with over 600 carries in five seasons of college football. He had a propensity for putting the ball on the ground a bit much last season, losing six fumbles. The fact the Bengals selected a running back in the fifth round could indicate they’re close on working out something with Mixon to keep him as their lead back but at a significant salary cut. Brown could come into camp with a point to prove and earn a spot as a Samaje Perine-type role. Will need to improve his consistency in pass-blocking.
“He’s super productive,” said Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. “I think he was top-five in rushing in the NCAA — over 1600 yards I think. Really productive, has great vision and great patience. He’s got good speed, good burst — just a really good ball carrier with really high character, a top level style of personality. Really, really intelligent. I really enjoyed the meetings that we’ve had with him. He’s a great fit for us and for that running back room. He does a lot of things well, and I think he’s going to be able to help us.”
Added Bengals running backs coach Justin Hill, “Just like Brian said, you see his speed, you see his vision. He’s got good patience as a runner. He’s a really good ball carrier. But to me, what stood out and what separates him from everybody else, (is our) conversation with him. He’s an extremely high-character guy, with a high football IQ. Honestly, (he was) one of my favorite guys to meet with throughout this whole process at the combine, and Zoom meetings afterward as well. He’s just an all-around great football player.”
Rd 6a: Andrei Iosivas, WR, Princeton: Perhaps the most intriguing pick for his upside. He’s 6-3 with a track-and-field background as a heptathlete. His Ivy League pedigree speaks to his intelligence and his captaincy of the Tigers speaks to his leadership and character. This is a great stash prospect who can develop under the tutelage of one of the smartest quarterbacks in football. A very heady pick by the Bengals. The Bengals have a notable Ivy League tradition with the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick (Harvard), Reggie Williams (Dartmouth) and Pat McInally (Harvard).
“Great visit. He flew in, we had dinner together, just talked about life, talked about his goals, what he wanted to achieve in the NFL,” Bengals WR coach Troy Walters said. “He asked me a lot of questions, which for a prospect, that raises your antenna — like, ‘Man, this guy is dialed in.’ And he was asking me questions … how could I make him better, and so forth. That visit — it really showed (me) the type of person he is, and the type of player he is. Just to get to know the guy, it was a good visit. And to get him in the sixth round, we’re excited.”
Rd 6b: Brad Robbins, P, Michigan: No fewer than five times did Darrin Simmons mention Robbins’ hang-time at Michigan as a factor for drafting this punter to challenge Drue Chrisman. Robbins also was a reliable holder for San Francisco third-round pick Jake Moody. Also notable were the directional skills Robbins displayed in punting in non-ideal conditions in October and November in the Big Ten. Both assets were exposed on the decisive punt of the AFC Championship in Kansas City that set the Chiefs up for the game-winning field goal. Clearly, Simmons and the Bengals want to ensure a repeat doesn’t take place. But it’s not just that punt. There were many instances where Chrisman got off long punts but the direction and hang-time weren’t there. Also, teams don’t often draft a punter or kicker without the intention of keeping said pick on the roster. Barring injury, he projects to beat out Chrisman and win the punting and holding job in 2023.
Rd 7: DJ Ivey, CB, Miami (Fla.): A five-year contributor with the Hurricanes, Ivey has played a lot of football before stepping onto an NFL field. He recorded 127 tackles, 17 pass breakups, six interceptions and four tackles for loss during his career. He has six interceptions and some play-making ability on the ball, always a plus. Gives the Bengals some depth in the secondary and could always work into a role on special teams.
The Bengals emerged Saturday night stronger and deeper with their roster, ready to take on the next step in roster building, signing undrafted college free agents to come to Cincinnati ready to work out with the Bengals.
The Bengals are in their strongest position ever. The way they approached the weekend only fortifies their place among the NFL elites. The Bengals are ready for phase 2 of their off-season program that begins with OTAs. And thanks to their work in free agency and the draft, they’ll be heading into it with a full head of steam.