Nov 21, 2015; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers defensive lineman Carl Lawson (55) sits on the bench during the fourth quarter against the Idaho Vandals at Jordan Hare Stadium. Auburn won 56-34. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports
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The Cincinnati Bengals entered Day 3 of the 2017 NFL Draft having done well to that point, but did they finish up just as strong?
The third day of the 2017 NFL Draft has come and gone, capping off a fast-paced and exciting time on the NFL calendar. Just as with the first two days of this draft, things worked out exceedingly well for the Cincinnati Bengals.
The team came into the final day of this event with a league-best nine different selections to make, giving them plenty of ammunition for assuaging their major issues of roster-wide talent and depth deficiencies.
Assuage those issues they did, with aplomb.
Nov 21, 2015; Auburn, AL, USA; Idaho Vandals quarterback Matt Linehan (10) runs the ball while defended by Auburn Tigers defensive lineman Carl Lawson (55) during the second quarter at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports
Round 4: Carl Lawson, DE – Auburn
To start their third day off, the Bengals doubled down on selecting pass rushers. Grabbing Jordan Willis in the third was a huge get, but adding Carl Lawson has a chance to be pretty impactful on its own.
Lawson has some more questions to deal with than Willis, I will grant that much. A slew of injuries sapped his effectiveness in college (among them: a torn ACL in 2014 and a hip problem in 2015), and could possibly do the same to his professional career to some degree. If he can stay healthy however, he brings a player who can make a sizable impact.
His Sparq score is almost as high as his new teammate’s, and it alludes to some enticing athletic measurables. His pass rushing may not be as exceptional as some guys, but also unlike some of the players taken before him, he isn’t a one-dimensional player. His ability to play against both the run and pass let’s him be an every-down weapon who would’ve been well worth high-round consideration if not for those aforementioned injury concerns.
With Lawson (and Willis before him), all of a sudden the flailing defensive end depth looks a whole lot better.
Nov 12, 2016; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers wide receiver Josh Malone (3) catches a pass against Kentucky Wildcats safety Marcus McWilson (15) during the third quarter at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Round 4: Josh Malone, WR – Tennessee
Lawson was just the first of three fourth rounders made by these Bengals. With their second pick of the round — acquired via the earlier trade down for the Joe Mixon selection — the Bengals continued to add to their receiving corps by drafting Josh Malone.
In a way, this could seem like excess to some. The team does have A.J. Green in tow, drafted Tyler Boyd last year, and already spent their top pick of this draft on John Ross. They also still had a decent grouping of needs remaining at this point. If you are in that group of people approaching the Malone pick like this, though, try to expand your thinking on the situation a bit.
That trio is impressive, but three guys don’t form a wide receiver corps by themselves. Past them, what else would there have been? I’ll tell you: Brandon LaFell (a limited veteran with drop problems who’s only ever been average at best), Cody Core (second-year player who didn’t play all that well in 2016 after being tabbed for a bunch of Green’s post-injury snaps), Alex Erickson (second year player who’s never played more than 14 snaps in a game), and the zero-snap trio of Jake Kumerow, Alonzo Russell, and Chris Brown. Not sure I should need to say it, but that’s not good.
Health will probably falter for at least one of this group at some point too. A.J. Green missed a portion of last year due to his hamstring, and Ross comes with his own injury concerns before even entering the league. If either of them (or Boyd) go down for a chunk of time, that would put one of those unappetizing options into a major role for far longer than they ever should be.
At worst, Malone gives them another plausible option to put to use. He can be more than that, however. He combines height and speed in a salivating package, and gives the team more of that explosive ability they sorely lacked before. With him and Ross both able to handle outside duties opposite Green, the Bengals have a much wider array of playcalling choices at their disposal, and can take the top off a defense from practically any spot in an alignment.
Save for NFL experience, this is starting to look nearly as appealing of a skill-position group as the Bengals had in 2015.
Sep 10, 2016; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; UCF Knights running back Jawon Hamilton (1) is tackled by defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow (96) and defensive end Chase Winovich (15) and Michigan Wolverines linebacker Mike McCray (9) in the first quarter at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Round 4: Ryan Glasgow, DT – Michigan
To finish their fourth rounders, the Bengals snapped up another defensive piece in Ryan Glasgow.
While Willis and Lawson should immediately lift the floor for the defensive end rotation, Glasgow can do the same for the defensive tackle group. After the release of longtime starter Domata Peko the group did still come to this point with a bunch of defensive tackles under contract, but little to show in the way of positive productivity — or really, any productivity.
Pat Sims is past his better days, but at least he could get on the field. Among the seven tackles on the Bengals before the draft, Geno Atkins is the only high-end contributor, and only Sims and DeShawn Williams saw any action in 2016. Brandon Thompson was up-and-down in his first four seasons, and none of the Andrew Billings/Marcus Hardison/David Dean trio has ever played a single regular season snap in the league.
Some of those guys have decent talent (particularly Billings, who could’ve had a decent shot at some of Pat Sims’ nose tackle snaps if not for a preseason injury), but none have a guarantee of that becoming production so adding another player who might should’ve been in the cards. Glasgow doesn’t portend to acting as any sort of dominance, but he grinds well against the run and could find himself in a nice rotation with one of those other guys in the spot next to Atkins.
Nov 25, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Tigers place kicker Jake Elliott (46) kicks a field goal against the Houston Cougars during the first half at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Round 5: Jake Elliott, K – Memphis
To get their fifth round going, Cincinnati went away from the usual list of needs and decided to address another little-discussed area necessitating improvement: their kicker.
For years, they stuck with Mike Nugent in that spot. Nugent was pretty consistent in his seven seasons with the Bengals, but that has good and bad connotations. He hasn’t missed kicks too often (made about 80 percent of his field goal attempts in that time), but that would rank in the bottom-third of percentages most years (Cincinnati was 24th in field goal accuracy for 2016).
Worse, his lack of leg strength has been glaring at times. It not only has contributed to a notably bad percentage on long field goals (8-of-19 from 50+ yards in his Bengals tenure, including 0-3 last year), but it has led to them being consistently one of the worst in touchback percentage for kickoffs (For example: 28th in 2016; 25th in 2015, per teamrankings.com).
Nugent was replaced towards the end of 2016 by Randy Bullock, but Bullock isn’t exactly a great option either. He started his career by missing nine of his first 35 kicks with Houston, and has bounced around to five different teams since 2013 — including three just last year! While Bullock did fine in his three-game stint to end 2016, he’s not what a team should consider their long-term option.
Enter Jake Elliott.
Elliott should solve many of the problems the Bengals had at this position in recent years. He set records at his college for scoring and field goals made, and should be able to carry that proficiency to the next level. Unlike his predecessor Nugent, he has a powerful leg, so longer field goals and kickoffs should be improved upon, helping put points on formerly scoreless drives and force opposing offenses to start with less advantageous field position more often.
The only problem he brings with him is possible consistency issues. The Bengals can’t really get much lower on the league totem pole in terms of field goal percentage anyway, though, and even if he bombs as a rookie, his draft pick cost was much more sufferable than what some teams have spent recently on kickers (even if he becomes good, Roberto Aguayo in the second round is an all-time awful decision by Tampa Bay), so the team could move on without much worry.
With a late-round pick in a draft where the team ended up with 11 guys selected, that’s a low-cost risk worth taking any day.
Sep 10, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Utes offensive lineman Isaac Asiata (54) and offensive lineman J.J. Dielman (68) celebrate with the Deseret First Duel trophy after beating Brigham Young Cougars their crosstown rivals 20-19 at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
Round 5: J.J. Dielman, C – Utah
Perhaps Cincinnati’s biggest immediate need entering this draft was the offensive line, but through seven picks, there was nary a shot taken to address any of those spots. At the end of the fifth round they finally changed that with the selection of J.J. Dielman.
Obviously, the group would appear to need something more than a late-rounder, but based on who they selected prior it’s hard to fault them, particularly in a draft with such a terribly perceived offensive line class. They had to get somebody however, and it is possible Dielman becomes a contributor.
The tackle spots on Cincinnati’s line have gotten the most negative attention, but the interior can’t exactly be called a strength either. Kevin Zeitler left a seismic hole at right guard, and neither of the Russell Bodine/Clint Boling pairing still in place should be thought of as better than league-average.
This team has been more than willing to try getting lower picks to become solid contributors; to some extent it has worked. For all their flaws, Bodine and Boling (both former fourth-round selections) were part of a strong, cohesive unit as recently as 2015, and that line of thinking has to have the Bengals confident in being able to develop another late-round guy into a decent starter.
Dielman might not end up as the choice to take over Zeitler’s spot, but he should at least be in the mix and could potentially act as a future replacement for Bodine or Boling as he improves.
Nov 19, 2016; Morgantown, WV, USA; Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Jordan Evans (26) reacts after breaking up a pass during the first quarter against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports
Round 6: Jordan Evans, LB – Oklahoma
I’ve been a big proponent to the idea that, leading up to this draft, the best position group on this entire Bengals team was their linebacking corps. That thinking led me to believe wholeheartedly that spending significant draft capital towards it (i.e.: grabbing someone like Reuben Foster with their first round pick) would be a huge mistake.
There is always room for improvement however, so tossing a mid- or late-round pick at the position would have always been a smart idea. The Bengals did just that with the selection of Jordan Evans.
With Vontaze Burfict, Vincent Rey, and Kevin Minter, the team’s core starters were well-set — the depth wasn’t. Rey Maualuga was released in the offseason, and the depth behind the core group was set to be Nick Vigil, Marquis Flowers, and Paul Dawson.
Vigil was clearly not ready to contribute last season (47.7 Pro Football Focus rating in 111 snaps across 2016). Flowers has done less in two years on the team (three anonymous snaps in 2016). Dawson has barely been able to even keep himself on the team (he got cut at one point last year). The depth was not at all what a team hoping to return to the playoffs could hope to bank on. Evans should help with that.
Issues with inconsistency and finesse play are clear detriments to his abilities against the run, but his ability to play in space makes him a good option as a coverage linebacker. His measurables were also among the best at his position (No. 9 in Sparq score at linebacker), so he should continue to improve in that area.
He may never be an every-down starter, but this team doesn’t need him to be. Let him participate in subpackages to pick up running backs and tight ends, and the Bengals should find themselves happy with the results.
Sep 3, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Cougars cornerback Brandon Wilson (26) catches a missed field goal attempt and returns it for a touchdown during the third quarter against the Oklahoma Sooners at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Round 6: Brandon Wilson, CB – Houston
At the start of the day, the Bengals had two picks for the sixth round. They found someone they liked though, so they made a trade up from their compensatory selection to grab him. Brandon Wilson is an obvious development project at cornerback, but that should suit Cincinnati just fine.
Even with first-rounders, the team often will let their guys sit for multiple seasons before giving them meaningful roles. Dre Kirkpatrick was drafted in 2012 and he didn’t take on a heavy snap count until 2015. Darqueze Dennard came on in 2014, but he still hasn’t played more than 334 snaps in a year. Josh Shaw got a bigger role in 2016. However, the former fourth-rounder spent most of his 2015 rookie season learning.
With those guys and Adam Jones in tow, Wilson shouldn’t be called on unless he’s ready to prove himself more pro-ready. If he ever is, his alluring athletic traits (No. 9 in Sparq score among cornerbacks in this draft) could be put to good use in the secondary. What’s more, he also has potential as a returner for this group, one of the many roles he occupied during his collegiate career.
Oct 22, 2016; DeKalb, IL, USA; Buffalo Bulls tight end Mason Schreck (85) looks to run after a catch against Northern Illinois Huskies defensive back Daniel Isom (39) during the second half at Huskie Stadium. Northern Illinois defeats Buffalo 44-7. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
Round 7: Mason Schreck, TE – Buffalo
Because of the earlier trade up to get Wilson, the Bengals were left with a single pick in the seventh round. With it, they addressed another key area of need: tight end depth. Tyler Eifert is the undisputed starter there — as he should be. When he’s healthy, only Rob Gronkowski is can be cemented ahead of him in the league’s tight end hierarchy.
“Healthy” is the important word there, of course. While he’s a terrorizing matchup on the field, he consistently finds himself watching from the sidelines. He’s never completed a full slate of games, missing 27 of a possible 64 games in his four-year career.
Behind him, the depth has always been the epitome of mediocrity. He has Jermaine Gresham (human avatar for the idea of mediocrity) there with him to start his career. Since Gresham departed for Arizona, he’s had C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Kroft. Each is okay in numerous aspects, but offers little dynamic ability.
That’s a huge problem when your main guy, as great as he can be, only manages to suit up about half the time.
Mason Schreck is not an established option, nor is he currently expected to be a contributor right away, but he has the potential to offer a level of receiving ability neither of the current backups can. Like Eifert, he can split out to run routes, and though he shouldn’t ever get to Eifert’s level of expertise he can become a much better fallback for when Eifert inevitably misses time.
It may be a tough go at first for him to supplant Uzomah or Kroft (he has a big jump to make from the University of Buffalo to NFL-level defenses), but if he finds a way to stick around on the roster in his early development (think special teams contributions) then he could one day be the capable second tight end option cincinnati has lacked throughout Eifert’s career so far.