NFL Draft: Options abound for Bengals with first-round pick

Iowa offensive lineman Tyler Linderbaum (65) looks to make a block during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Illinois, Nov. 20, 2021, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

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Iowa offensive lineman Tyler Linderbaum (65) looks to make a block during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Illinois, Nov. 20, 2021, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The Cincinnati Bengals addressed their biggest needs in free agency by picking up three new starters on the offensive line to protect Joe Burrow, but that just means they have more options and flexibility with their first-round pick of the draft.

Less than two weeks away from the NFL Draft, most pundits have the Bengals taking a cornerback to play opposite Chidobe Awuzie or a safety to either groom as Jessie Bates’ eventual replacement or in case Vonn Bell moves on next year.

Still others think it unwise to not dip into a deep offensive line class, even considering what the Bengals have done in free agency.

Here is a breakdown of the needs and players that could be available to Cincinnati at No. 31 overall.

CORNERBACK

Cincinnati brought back cornerback Eli Apple, a former first-round draft pick, but could use another candidate to try to beat him out for the starting job. The cornerback spot is the most glaring concern.

The Athletic’s seven-round beat writer draft had the Bengals taking Washington cornerback Kyler Gordon in the first round, noting “the feisty, physical, playmaking Gordon would be an ideal fit in coordinator Lou Anarumo’s system next to Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton.”

Mel Kiper Jr.’s latest mock draft on ESPN.com has them trading down to the second round with the Jets, who need a center, and then selecting Florida cornerback Kaiir Elam at No. 35 overall. He noted cornerback is the biggest need even if the Bengals stay at No. 31, and “they should be thrilled with Elam here (at No. 35). He locked down receivers for the Gators and then ran a 4.39 40 at the combine. He could be a Day 1 starter for Cincinnati.”

ESPN’s Jordan Reid also had Elam going to the Bengals at No. 31 in his seven-round mock draft, saying Elam has gone “under the radar in a loaded defensive back class, is a long and physical corner (6-foot-1, 192 pounds). He has easy movement skills, and teams will covet his length.”

Another option that has come up in previous mock drafts was Clemson’s Andrew Booth Jr., a highlight-reel athletic corner who recorded 75 tackles (5.5 for loss), 10 pass breakups, five interceptions, a sack and a fumble recovery in 981 defensive snaps over 35 career games (15 starts) from 2019-21.

OFFENSIVE LINE?

The Bengals previously had been linked with Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum – who Kiper predicts the Jets would take -- in early projections before Cincinnati signed former Patriots guard/center Ted Karras.

Some still think the Bengals can’t go wrong adding even more pieces to the offensive line, but they also used three draft picks last year on that position group and have hope those players develop quicker in Year 2.

Despite that, ESPN’s “Draft Day Predictor” has three offensive linemen being the most likely picks for the Bengals. The new analytical tool takes into account Scouts Inc. prospect grades, mock draft data, team needs and past results to compute how likely players will be available and where they are most likely to land.

ESPN’s predictor gives Linderbaum about an eight percent chance of being the Bengals’ pick, followed by Boston College guard Zion Johnson at seven percent. Other players with at least a five percent chance of being the pick at 31 include Texas A&M guard Kenyon Green, Georgia defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt and Minnesota edge Boye Mafe. The Bengals also couldn’t go wrong with the best defensive lineman available if an elite option is still on the board.\

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Florida running back Dameon Pierce (27) is tackled by Georgia defensive back Latavious Brini (36) and defensive back Lewis Cine (16), below, after rushing during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack

Florida running back Dameon Pierce (27) is tackled by Georgia defensive back Latavious Brini (36) and defensive back Lewis Cine (16), below, after rushing during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack

caption arrowCaption
Florida running back Dameon Pierce (27) is tackled by Georgia defensive back Latavious Brini (36) and defensive back Lewis Cine (16), below, after rushing during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack

Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack

SAFETY

Kiper has five cornerbacks going in the first round. If there is a run at that position, the next biggest need seems to be at safety. It’s unclear if the Bengals are going to be able to lock down Bates to a long-term deal, and he could be playing his last season on the franchise tag this year. With neither him nor Bell guaranteed beyond 2022 at this point, that position needs to be addressed in some shape or form this draft.

NFL.com’s Rhett Lewis has the Bengals taking Georgia safety Lewis Cine, the best player he felt would be available for them. His draft showed the biggest need actually being at linebacker, in which case he would go with Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith, but he went with Cine “to provide depth and amplify a position of strength here with PFF’s best available player.”

The Bengals loaded up on linebackers in the 2020 draft but do still need depth, especially ones that can fill roles on special teams. It just doesn’t feel like an area they have to target in the early rounds. Lewis mentioned other names like Quay Walker, Christian Harris and Chad Muma as first-round linebacker options if that is deemed a higher priority.

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