CINCINNATI — Nobody in the NFL drafts like the Cincinnati Bengals.
That is a statement of fact. It was not and is not always a compliment.
A year after the Bengals appeared to have set the foundation for a bright future by drafting a pass-catch combo with their first two picks, they have two first-rounders thanks to a steal of a trade involving the guy who used to throw the passes in Cincinnati.
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The Bengals go into Thursday’s first round with some talent, momentum and picks 17 and 21, providing a chance to fill needs or go for a real splash. Maybe both.
“We feel like our options are very open,” head coach Marvin Lewis said Tuesday.
Lewis didn’t say much specific in his annual pre-draft press conference. In fact, he never referred to a single individual draft prospect by name or addressed a potential need area without being prompted. It’s part secrecy — sound business in the NFL at this time of year — and part that the Bengals probably really don’t know which players will still be on board by the time No. 17 rolls around.
It’s not their style to trade up, but they have the ammunition to do so if an opportunity presents itself. Come Thursday night, they’ll start as interested spectators and could end up taking a step (or two) closer to actually contending in the loaded AFC.
“Maybe we have more needs defensively,” Lewis said. “We took some guys up high offensively the last couple years.”
That’s about as close to a hint as you’re going to get. The Bengals have options, some needs and a track record of letting talent trump all in the draft room, so maybe they will end up swinging for the fences this weekend.
The Bengals don’t have a general manager. They have a team owner/head honcho in Mike Brown who likes to run the draft. They have a coach in Lewis who’s also very much in on the decision. While most of the rest of the NFL employs scouts by the dozens, the Bengals generally turn their assistant coaches into scouts in the months between the season and the draft.
When that strategy has led to misses, the Bengals have taken their beatings from angry fans. Over the past few years, though, they’ve brought in the likes of A.J. Green, Andy Dalton, Carlos Dunlap, Jermaine Gresham, Michael Johnson and Rey Maualuga, forming a young core that tasted success last season and is looking for more.
Last October’s trade of Carson Palmer to Oakland brought a first-round pick this year and a second-rounder next year. Trades of Chad Ochocinco and Keith Rivers give the Bengals three fifth-round picks this year and nine overall. The needs include offensive guard, wide receiver, running back, linebacker and secondary. The Bengals are in position to take the best available players this weekend.
“We’re really excited where we are, position-wise,” Lewis said. “(This draft) has a good group of prospects that will afford us a good chance to have guys come in and contribute early to the football team.”
Last year, the Bengals won nine games and made the playoffs and that was after giving away home games to two teams that turned out to be pretty good, the 49ers and Texans. But the playoff stay was short-lived, and the Bengals’ only division wins came against the Browns. The 2011 season would be considered a success, but the Bengals are not where they want to be yet.
The free-agent addition of BenJarvus Green-Ellis at running back means they don’t have to take a running back early, though the Bengals haven’t hidden their interest in Boise State’s Doug Martin. Cornerback is probably the most pressing need, but the signings of Terrence Newman and Adam Jones add veteran presence and depth, at the very least, while Hall rehabs from an Achilles injury.
Lewis acknowledged the need for cornerbacks in today’s pass-happy NFL but still didn’t say much in the way of specifics.
“There are certain areas Mike (Brown) and I feel we need to address,” Lewis said. “If we have two players (in the draft) who are pretty close in ability and one fills a need that’s going to be a need for the next 2-3 years and beyond, there’s no question we’ll look to fill that need.”
Lewis said he asked his assistant coaches to rank the prospects in this year’s draft from 1-50 on both sides of the ball in terms of how they fit the Bengals, not how they might fit another team or another system. He said the staff has spent the last several weeks discussing, debating and preparing a plan of attack for the weekend based on those fits.
“It’s not an emotional thing,” Lewis said. “We’re in this together. We’ve got to win together or somebody else sits here.”
The options are open, and the opportunities seem to be good. The NFL schedule-makers seem to think the Bengals are a team on the rise based on the three national TV games slated for the 2012 season, and by the end of the weekend, the Bengals could create even more of a buzz.