The Cincinnati Bengals are on the clock. And the future of the franchise might hinge on the 2014 NFL Draft.
After finishing the regular season with an 11-5 record, the Bengals suffered a heart-breaking loss in the AFC Wild-Card game against the San Diego Chargers 27-10 at Paul Brown Stadium.
The good news — Cincinnati gets its All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins back from a season-ending knee injury, which was suffered during a Thursday night contest against the Miami Dolphins.
The bad news — through injury, age or free agency, the Bengals need to address several key positions before the start of training camp in late July.
As the roster rebuilding continues, Cincinnati has nine picks in Thursday’s draft, including the 24th overall selection. Before I begin with the draft process, let me preface this article by saying the Bengals should not be looking at a quarterback in the first three rounds.
Andy Dalton might not be a consistent performer in clutch situations but, in my opinion, there isn’t a quarterback in this draft better than the former Texas Christian University signal caller. I would not trade up for a quarterback and at No. 24, the quarterback value just isn’t there.
With that being said, when Cincinnati has the floor at Radio City Music Hall in New York, they should look at drafting a cornerback. If he slides past the Pittsburgh Steelers, Oklahoma State senior Justin Gilbert could still be available. He has supreme athletic ability, quickness and speed.
The 6-foot, 202-pound prospect has some consistency issues with his technique. But teaching technique at the next level would hardly being a concern, especially given his athletic ability. If Gilbert is off the board, I would turn to TCU senior Jason Verrett.
I spoke about him during my Browns preview and the more I watch tape on this kid, the more I am impressed by his skill set. He his undersized at 5-10 but he is a good cover man, especially in man-to-man coverage. He has good instincts and the confidence to undercut throws.
Either selection would add youth to an aging position. The Bengals No. 1 corner, Leon Hall, is coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon, his second ruptured tendon in three seasons. Also, Terence Newman will be 36 in September and Adam “Pacman” Jones will be turning 31 in September. So, Verrett would immediately pay dividends.
In the second round of the draft, with the 55th overall selection, Cincinnati needs to target a defensive end to replace the loss of Michael Johnson who departed town as a free agent. Scott Crichton, junior out of Oregon State, would be a good selection at this point.
Crichton is a powerful individual who holds up well at the point of attack. He has the power to anchor the line while also showing the agility to string the play to the outside, allowing his defensive teammates a chance to pursue. He also has strong hands and a good base, while possessing the power to bull rush an opposing player.
In the third round, No. 88 overall, the Bengals need to address their offensive line woes. There are multiple ways to address this position of need but I would look at the center position, especially after Kyle Cook was released by the team.
A good selection at this point would be Travis Swanson out of Arkansas. The 6-foot-5-inch, 312-pound senior has the size and strength to deal with big, physical defensive lineman. From differing reports on Swanson, he appears to have the football IQ to make line calls, which is crucial for the position in the NFL.
He lacks front-line speed when pulling down the line but that would not concern me at this point in the draft.
Those are my Top 3 selections for Cincinnati. All three picks would make the Bengals a better team, while also adding youth and athleticism to the roster.
Cincinnati isn’t far away from taking the next step and becoming a post-season contender. With a good draft strategy, the Bengals could be well on their way to taking that next step in 2014.
Chris Slone can be reached at 353-3101, ext 298, or on Twitter @PDTSportsEditor.