CINCINNATI — The Bengals are no longer in the part of the NFL draft that is easy to predict.
Thanks to their rise to a perennial Super Bowl contender, they are now picking at the end of the first round, where it’s impossible to predict how the prior 27 selections will play out.
Duke Tobin, the Bengals mastermind of roster building, alluded to this and had some fun Thursday when asked bluntly who was he going to take in the first round.
“Give me the first 27 and I’ll tell you,” Tobin said with his now-patented sly grin. “If you can’t give me an accurate 27, I won’t tell you.”
That’s about as honest an answer as the Bengals director of personnel could possibly give, and it’s also telling.
With a nearly limitless list of possibilities unfolding before the Bengals select, it’s pretty impossible to say whether the Bengals will lean toward a tight end, offensive tackle, corner, running back or safety.
“It’s very hard for me to assess everyone else’s needs and what they’re going to do and who they like,” Tobin said. “We’ll have 28 guys ranked and we’ll be ready to go. We’ll have good options. We feel like they’ll be some good options for us. We just can’t control who it will be. But we’ll be ready no matter who goes ahead of us.
“Every draft’s a little different. I don’t know if it helps or hurts. We try to evaluate each individual player, rank them amongst the group and go off of our thoughts and try to get cohesion between the scouts, the coaches and ownership. So we feel like we’ve done that process. We feel like we’re in a good space to go forward. We feel like there’s good options, but we just don’t know what those options will be when we go.”
What Tobin did acknowledge is that the Bengals won’t be drafting to fill a need as much as drafting the highest ranked player on their board. If that happened to overlap with a need or position they feel they need to bolster, then all the better.
Safe to say the Bengals won’t be taking a quarterback, kicker, punter or long snapper at 28. Everything else? Well, that’s up for debate and endless mock drafts.
One of the more common themes among the mocks has the Bengals drafting tight end Michael Mayer in the first round out of Notre Dame. But if he’s not there, the Bengals have a fall back position now with Irv Smith Jr. on board after coming over from the Vikings and Drew Sample re-signing.
“You know we will assess it as it goes. But having those two tight ends on board is great,” Tobin said. “You want guys with experience and Sample, I think we know what we’re going to get out of him and he’ll provide good reps for us this year, he’s still got some rehab to come. And we feel good about Irv and what he’s going to bring to our team. So if we get an opportunity to add a young guy, we’re not going to turn it down we don’t eliminate any position in the draft. If you start doing that you run out of players. And so we’re gonna look at every position and what’s available. And if the best guy available is a tight end, we’ll probably go that route.”
Some of the biggest takeaways from Tobin:
“I don’t know, the process is the same for us, whether you’re picking No. 1 or whether you’re picking No. 32, we’re going to evaluate everybody, and we’re going to rank them for us in our team. And so the process is the same, you know, when you’re picking first you’re also picking 33rd so that’s not too different than picking 28th or 29th or 30th.”
Arguably, the second-most important draft selection of the Duke Tobin era came in the same year at his most significant. After taking Burrow No. 1 in 2020, wide receiver Tee Higgins fell into the Bengals laps at 33. One could certainly make the case that Ja’Marr Chase is the most important pick after Burrow but the fact that the Bengals had an elite receiver like Higgins fall to them in the same draft as their franchise quarterback cannot be overstated.
“So, once the draft gets rolling, it’s the same process for us. Sometimes it’s maybe a little smaller universe when you’re up top and I’ve always said that having a wide universe down at the bottom of the first round is something that’s kind of nice, you know, there’s a bigger pool of, of opportunity and, and a bigger pool of guys who are worthy of that pick than maybe a top five pick.”
If you “re-drafted” the 2020 class, there’s no chance Higgins would make it to the Bengals at 33.
“No, not really. I think if you have a player that’s performing well, you’re talking to him about an extension anyway, you know, rather than going into the fifth-year option, but we’ll see. We’ll see. Sometimes those can’t get done and the fifth-year option is nice, but it’s also an expensive option.”
This is a clear reference to the pickle the Bengals found themselves in with tackle Jonah Williams. Not knowing what the future held before last season, the Bengals, having already invested in rebuilding their interior offensive line, couldn’t have known that a franchise left tackle would be become available in Orlando Brown Jr. The Bengals, not wanting to lose a familiar commodity in Williams, the 11th pick in the 2019 draft, guaranteed the fifth year of Williams’ rookie contract, an option they have on any first-round selection. But the cost of that insurance premium is $12.6 million. The Bengals might find a trade partner or they might just stick him at right tackle to start training camp. Stay tuned.
“Yeah, it could be. It’s all hypothetical. You know, you’ve got to have somebody that wants to move in and so you’ve got to have a player where in somebody else’s mind of coming up and giving up picks or players or future picks for a guy. So if he’s that good for some other team, maybe he’s good for you, too. So it’s all dependent how convicted are you on the guy that is available that you will be picking and how much you’re getting in return. But we’ll look at it if it comes up. But it’s all hypothetical right now.
Does a lack of “can’t-miss” prospects make the first round any more challenging to assess?
“I think that’s accurate. It’s hard to predict the very top of this draft. I think you know the quarterbacks will probably come off. They always do. That position is so important. Sometimes you can predict which quarterbacks will go. Other than that, I don’t think it’s easy to predict the top 10 of this draft. Some drafts are probably a little easier.”
When do draft trade talks start?
“What happens in advance is just feeling out. Everybody’s open to trading. So you call around and say ‘hypothetically if we want to come up from 38 to 28, are you guys interested?’ ‘Sure, give us a call.’ Those are the feeling outs. The only really thing that really matters is what happens in the moment and what happens as your pick is approaching. The conversations in the days leading up to it are not the ones that matter much in my opinion.”
“We’re never looking for guys that are going to take forever. The nature of our league and the way it’s structured is you need to get performance out of your guys early in their careers and after four years they’re not yours anymore. And you have to decide whether to re-sign them or not. The days of long-term development and looking for guys to produce four, five, six years down the road, that doesn’t happen. We want all of our players to have a role when they come in the building and try to grow that role the best they can. You only have 53 and you only have 48 dressed on game day, so you want everybody that’s in that mix to have a role and be ready to go.”