NFL Draft: Bengals believe Michigan standout brings versatility to secondary

CINCINNATI -- Zac Taylor said the Cincinnati Bengals still see some good options available at cornerback to potentially address a need in the second or third round of the NFL Draft on Friday, but the organization selected what Taylor considers a “premier player” in the first round Thursday.

The Bengals took Michigan safety Daxton Hill with the 31st overall pick in the first round, despite only three cornerbacks going off the board the first day of the draft.

Cincinnati’s biggest needs were in the secondary, and while most mock drafts projected the team taking a cornerback first, safety is just as much a concern with Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell both only on guaranteed contracts through 2022.

“He’s a player that we thought very highly of,” Taylor said Thursday in a press conference at Paul Brown Stadium, moments after the pick was announced on NFL Network. “We were surprised he was there for us and really eager to add him to our team.”

Hill brings versatility as a hybrid safety or nickel cornerback and is considered to have an impressive blend of speed, explosiveness and coverage skills. Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said he can play either role in the Cincinnati defense and even provide opportunities for more three-safety packages to get him on the field with Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell.

Michigan’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2019, Hill was a Big Ten honorable mention player in 2020 and a first-team, all-conference pick in 2021. He filled the stat sheet as a 14-game starter last fall, recording 70 tackles, 4.5 for loss, two interceptions and nine pass breakups.

Taylor said Hill’s consistency over the course of his career was what stood out most, seeing how he can play at a high level for a long period of time. His skill set will bode well in the AFC North as well, Anarumo said.

“I think it’s important you know the way when you look at offenses these days and the way tight ends are utilized and running backs out of the backfield and, you know, just different things that this guy (can do),” Anarumo said. “He can blitz off the edge, he can cover, good against the run, good getting off blocks and things like that. So, I think we’re getting a good overall football player.”

Hill said he considers himself a safety first but is willing to do whatever the coaches ask of him. He was just excited to be selected in the first round, especially going to a team like the Bengals, who nearly won a Super Bowl last year.

The Oklahoma native was celebrating his draft night with friends and family in Tulsa when he got the call from the Bengals.

“I mean, really just exciting experience, really just experiencing it with my family and friends,” Hill said in a conference call with local media. “It’s really just good to be a Bengal, so words can’t really describe how I feel right now, but I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”

Hill believes he is the type of player that could have made a difference in the Bengals’ loss to the L.A. Rams in the Super Bowl.

“I mean, it’s really a blessing, just so ironic how they could have won the Super Bowl last year, but really, my upside really can be very important to the team and I feel like me coming in, they definitely should know that I can do great things for the defense and for the team,” Hill said.

The Bengals had interviewed Hill among their top 45 candidates at the Combine and conducted some additional Zoom interviews with him as well. Hill said he spoke to someone from the organization earlier in the day Thursday and knew the Bengals could be a team interested enough to select him.

When the first round was nearly coming to an end and his name still on the board, he wasn’t concerned about falling to Day 2.

“I knew that everything was going to fall into place,” Hill said. “So I really wasn’t too concerned. Just being motivated more by what I did. My family also supported me, so, whatever it was, I knew I was gonna end up at the right spot.”

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