Only one team picking in the top five of next week’s NFL draft has no interest in a rookie quarterback: the Cincinnati Bengals. The 2021 class features QBs galore, and there’s a legitimate chance that for the first time, each of the draft’s first four picks will be a signal-caller. The Jaguars and Jets have been locked in to QBs since the moment they earned the top two picks, and after trading up for the no. 3 pick, we know the 49ers are going to take a passer. Meanwhile, the Falcons are at least positioned to choose Matt Ryan’s successor; they could also trade with a team that wants to jump up to grab a rookie passer. This leaves the Bengals sitting pretty at no. 5.
Joe Burrow, last year’s no. 1 pick, is working to return after a torn ACL and MCL cut his rookie season short 10 games in. Despite a settled QB situation, though, Cincinnati has the chance to make one of the more interesting selections in the draft. The priority will be to help Burrow. The question is how.
The top non-QB prospects all make sense for the Bengals. On most draft boards, the best fits for Cincinnati include Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, and Florida tight end Kyle Pitts. If the Bengals don’t trade out of the no. 5 slot, they’ll have to decide whether it’s more important to keep Burrow upright or find him a pass catcher.
“I think there’s a lot of ways that we can help our offense and help Joe,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor told reporters last month. “Whether that’s upfront, whether that’s at receiver, whether that’s adding guys on defense to keep the point totals down and allow us to do some other things on offense, as well. You’ve gotta take all those options as they come at you with the fifth pick, whatever. Just gotta be flexible as this thing goes.”
The Bengals leaned on Burrow’s arm at a record-setting pace last season. Before he went down with his injury, Burrow was on track to lead the league in pass attempts. His 40.4 attempts per game average would’ve surpassed Andrew Luck’s single-season rookie attempts record (39.2). Entering his third season as Cincy’s coach, Taylor has established himself as one of the NFL’s most pass-heavy play-callers. The Bengals ranked third in pass frequency (64 percent, per Warren Sharp’s database) through Week 11 last season; they finished fifth in pass frequency in 2019 (63 percent).
Environment arguably plays as significant a role in determining a QB’s success as his own talent. Just ask Ryan Tannehill. So what can the Bengals do to make Burrow’s environment better? Here are the draft cases for both bolstering the offensive line and bolstering the receiving corps.
The Case for Offensive Line
The Bengals deployed 10 different starting offensive line combinations last season, with 10 different players registering at least 200 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Considering how often Cincinnati throws the ball—and that 2020 was a year in which players didn’t have a preseason to solidify continuity—the lack of chemistry and constant rotation played an undeniable role in the unit’s struggles. Bengals passers were pressured on 24.1 percent of their dropbacks (the 13th-highest rate) and hit on 72 dropbacks (tied for fourth), according to Pro-Football-Reference. Cincinnati QBs were sacked 48 times (tied for fifth most) last season, and the Bengals ranked 24th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate and tied for 29th in ESPN’s pass block win rate (50 percent).
Last month, Taylor strongly commended the efforts of the offensive linemen who worked through injury or rotated positions on short notice. But he also made it clear that “we’ve gotta play better up front than we did last year.”
“If we’re going to go where we need to go as an offense,” Taylor told reporters, “then we need five pieces in place that can play together, develop that chemistry with one another.”
The Bengals re-signed veteran guard Quinton Spain, a midseason pickup last year who started eight games. They also reached a one-year deal with tackle Riley Reiff, who enters his 10th season after starting 15 games for the Vikings last year. The question is whether Cincinnati’s current unit is good enough that the team shouldn’t prioritize adding a young tackle with an early pick. Reiff, 32, has been durable but is on the back end of his career, and since he’s on only a one-year contract, the Bengals will be in the offensive tackle market against next year. Left tackle Jonah Williams—the 11th pick of the 2019 draft—started 10 games last year before landing on injured reserve with a knee injury; he’d already missed his entire rookie season recovering from surgery on a torn labrum. Taylor said he’d still prefer to roll with Williams at left tackle next season.
“Everybody’s got to be flexible with what pieces are available to you,” Taylor said. “You can never say anything is set in stone, but I’m very comfortable with Jonah at left tackle. I think he made some really solid improvements from game to game, and we’re really excited about him getting back there at that piece next year.”
That doesn’t preclude the Bengals from either adding a potential replacement or a future bookend. At fifth overall, the Bengals will be positioned to potentially select Oregon’s Sewell (The Ringer’s Danny Kelly has him as his no. 5 overall prospect) or even Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater (Kelly’s no. 8 prospect). Sewell, 20, opted out of the 2020 college football season, but is an extraordinary athlete at his size (6-foot-5, 331 pounds) and looks the part of a long-term anchor outside. Slater, 21, burst onto the scene last season, stonewalling some of the best recent collegiate pass rushers en route to solidifying himself as a top-15 pick.
Lowest pressure % allowed among 2021 OT prospects with RPOs, play-action and screens removed over the past two seasons:— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) January 11, 2021
T-1. Penei Sewell (2.1%) — 2019
T-1. Rashawn Slater (2.1%) — 2019
2. Abraham Lucas (2.5%) — 2019
3. Sam Cosmi (2.7%) — 2020
4. Sam Cosmi (2.8%) — 2019
“When you do bring in a veteran guy, he’s got the experience in the league and he can come right in,” Taylor said. “And sometimes you take younger guys and they’ve got maybe a higher ceiling, more potential.”
A key argument for choosing an offensive tackle sooner rather than later is the number of quality prospects. Including Sewell and Slater, Kelly currently ranks 12 offensive tackle prospects within his top 85 prospects. Kelly ranks 14 receivers in that same span. The Bengals pick again at no. 38, so it may make more sense to use a top draft choice on a tackle and wait on a receiver. That’s especially true given that the second round has produced some incredible wideouts as of late, including Davante Adams and Michael Thomas. The same isn’t as true for linemen.
The Case for a Pass Catcher
This is considered to be a deep class of offensive tackle prospects. Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin thinks so, too.
“There are guys that will be available in the second, third rounds that have starter grades on them,” Tobin told the team site earlier this month. “Maybe they’ll last longer than that, too. It’s a position group we’ve been focused on and we think having healthy guys there and the addition of Riley Reiff, we think we’re in a better spot than we were and there’ll be additions.”
Let’s imagine Cincinnati is content with waiting to address tackle at the top of the second round, with pick no. 38. At no. 5, the Bengals could choose from a handful of possible pass-catching targets, depending on who is taken fourth. There are rumors that the Falcons, should they maintain their position, could choose Pitts. If Pitts is available for Cincinnati, though, he’d serve as a huge upgrade. The Bengals tight end room consists of Drew Sample and C.J. Uzomah, neither of whom has ever recorded more than 500 yards in a season. Many draft experts consider Pitts to be a generational tight end prospect, and his skill set could give Cincinnati a true difference-maker in the passing game.
The other option will be receivers. LSU’s Chase (who opted out last season after helping Burrow to a record-setting 2019 Heisman campaign) and Alabama receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle are considered the class’s best. Still, don’t the Bengals have a decent group already? Tyler Boyd registered consecutive 1,000-yard seasons before dropping to 841 yards (10.6 yards per catch) last year; wideout Tee Higgins flashed potential in his rookie year despite being nagged by a hamstring injury; the Auden Tate project hasn’t come together yet, but there’s some who think he still offers intrigue.
“I think we have a talented [receiver] room,” Taylor said. “We’ve got good depth there. Adding another piece is never off the table. You’re talking to a guy who likes to call plays—you always like to have as many weapons as possible.”
Burrow is an aggressive passer. According to Next Gen Stats, he made a tight-window throw (when a defender is within 1 yard of a target) on 21.5 percent of his attempts, which was third highest among passers. That’s partially because Burrow had to be aggressive; none of his top receivers were particularly great at giving him uncontested looks. Boyd (2.7 average yards of separation per target, according to NGS), Higgins (2.5), and A.J. Green (1.7, tied for lowest in league among qualified receivers) formed one of the NFL’s worst receiving trios in terms of separating from coverage. These facts might provide a glimpse into what kind of receiver the Bengals could be interested in next weekend.
During free agency, the Bengals were a surprise candidate for Kenny Golladay, the big-bodied wideout whose market was surprisingly quiet before he agreed to a deal with the Giants. Per PFF, Golladay has the highest contested catch percentage (63 percent) of any player over the past three seasons. Considering Burrow’s aggressiveness, targeting a player who thrives at winning in traffic makes sense. Out of the top three wideout prospects, Chase fits the ball-dominant archetype best.
Ja'Marr Chase's ability to win with physicality at the LOS and the catch point is absurd.— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) December 26, 2020
There are better athletes and better route-runners in this class, but no one tops Chase's strength/physicality. pic.twitter.com/7HYbJNuNEI
In 2019, Chase made 16 contested catches, per PFF—and that season took place with Burrow behind center. The Bengals, as USA Today’s Steven Ruiz pointed out last year, have already shown a willingness to cater to Burrow’s strengths by implementing an empty-heavy scheme featuring elements of the one he thrived in at LSU. With Chase, the Bengals could plug a familiar face into the lineup, one who led 2019 FBS receivers with 23 broken tackles and 411 yards after contact. But does Chase’s skill set and continuity with Burrow outweigh the potential of adding game-breaking separators like Smith and Waddle?
Perhaps Chase offers enough to warrant the pick. There will also be several options from another talented, deep class of receivers to choose from when they pick in the second round. After all, in recent history, second-round pass catchers have found greater success than their first-round counterparts.
Regardless, the Bengals are in a favorable spot to aid Burrow’s development. Adding a tackle would enable Cincinnati to better preserve its star passer in a division featuring some of the league’s best pass-rushing groups. Choosing a receiver could round out the Bengals receiving room and add dynamism to an already interesting group.
“Either way works well for us,” Taylor said, grinning. “Unfortunately, I don’t like how we got there, but we’re in a good spot in the draft to make some good decisions on draft day.”