The Cincinnati Bengals have their work cut out to contend for the playoffs, but their high position in the 2021 NFL Draft should help them land at least one franchise-changing player to continue rebuilding around Joe Burrow.
Which direction will Cincinnati go with the No. 5 overall pick, and how will the other premium Bengals draft picks to be spent? We’ll take a closer look at some of the best scenarios below, including who’s worth targeting based on team need and how the draft might play out.
Other than an extra seventh-round selection from Detroit, the Bengals have all their own seven picks in each round, but we’ll just focus on the draft’s first two days here.
Cincinnati Bengals draft picks: Best prospects to target in three-round mock
First round, 5th pick: Penei Sewell (OT, Oregon), Ja’Marr Chase (WR, LSU), Patrick Surtain II (CB, Alabama), Kyle Pitts (TE, Florida)
Among the players who opted out of the 2020 season, perhaps no prospect is as respected as Sewell, who’s a phenomenal pass protector and a mauler in the running game. Because he projects so well to the NFL, Sewell is arguably the greatest left tackle prospect of the past decade — since Dallas Cowboys perennial Pro Bowler Tyron Smith.
Given that Burrow went down with a major knee injury and took so much punishment as a rookie due to a horrendous offensive line in front of him, it’s easily the biggest slam-dunk pick for Cincinnati to make if Sewell is on the board at No. 5.
But there are some fun scenarios in the unfortunate event that the Bengals miss out on Sewell. The other opt-out stud of the 2021 class is Chase, who won a national championship alongside Burrow in 2019, as the pair connected for 84 catches, 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Cornerback could be a need if William Jackson leaves in free agency, but if Cincinnati is smart, he’ll be re-signed. Surtain is hard to pass up, though, if Chase and Sewell are somehow go in the top four picks. Defensive backs are invaluable in the modern NFL, and Surtain is the most pro-ready among all the cornerbacks coming out.
Finally, Pitts is just a matchup nightmare at tight end. Even though the Bengals invested a 2020 second-rounder in the position with Drew Sample, he’s much more of a run blocker than pass-catcher. Pitts is the type of game-breaking, instant-impact receiving threat who’d make Burrow’s live so much easier.
Second round, 38th pick: Trey Smith (OL, Tennessee), Asante Samuel Jr. (CB, Florida State), Rondale Moore (WR, Purdue), Landon Dickerson (OL, Alabama)
The 6-foot-6, 335-pound Volunteers guard was a first-team all-SEC selection for the second straight time in 2020. Smith is exactly the type of presence Cincinnati needs near the top of Round 2: someone who can toughen the offense up between the tackles, eat space and create running lanes for electric tailback Joe Mixon.
Thanks to excellent athleticism for his size and strength at the point of attack, Smith can overcome any shortcomings in pass protection at his size. Plus, it helps he’s had to go up against many future NFL players in the SEC throughout his collegiate career. His PFF grade in 2019 ranked 10th out of 436 qualifying guards.
Dickerson is coming off a torn ACL, but has versatility to play anywhere on the inside of the offensive line, including at center. It’d probably take a bit of patience on the Bengals’ part for Dickerson to pay off, and they shouldn’t waste a year of Burrow’s rookie contract waiting on him.
Again, the value of the cornerback position and the skill Samuel brings to the gridiron as an undersized yet physical, crafty cover man on the outside would play well in Cincinnati’s secondary.
Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are bigger receivers who can function well on the outside, even if Boyd is more of a slot man at this point. If the Bengals want to roll the dice on a true home-run threat, Moore is the way to go. His ceiling is something resembling Tyreek Hill. That’s how explosive he can be, and if he hits, it’d make up for the disappointing bust John Ross has been.
Third round, 69th pick: Brevin Jordan (TE, Miami), Jaylen Twyman (DT, Pittsburgh), Tylan Wallace (WR, Oklahoma State)
Since Florida’s Pitts probably won’t be the primary target in Round 1, Cincinnati could settle for a fantastic consolation prize in Jordan, should he be waiting for his name to be called still on Day 3.
In his last two seasons, Jordan played 17 games for the Miami Hurricanes, and had 1,071 yards receiving with nine touchdowns, including seven scores over eight games during the 2020 campaign. That goes to show just how much of a weapon Jordan is in the red zone.
Per TeamRankings.com, the Bengals ranked 30th in converting only 50% of their red zone trips into touchdowns. Part of that is bad run blocking, part of it is scheme and some of it is due to a lack of specialized weapons for such situations. Jordan really fits the bill and stands out as someone who ought to be a prime target, and fulfills a dire need in Cincinnati.
Since Geno Atkins is no longer around, Twyman is an intriguing interior pass-rusher (10.5 sacks in 2019) who’s capable of being a factor in that area even in Year 1, and can hopefully improve versus the run going forward.
Long-tenured receiver A.J. Green probably will want to play for a contender next season, so it wouldn’t hurt Cincinnati to add a receiver like Wallace early in the third round. Wallace produced steadily in three straight seasons at Oklahoma State, and is a sure-handed catcher who also boasts big play ability and would be a great bargain at 69th overall.
Ideal Cincinnati Bengals mock draft
- First round: Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
- Second round: Trey Smith, OL, Tennessee
- Third round: Brevin Jordan, TE, Miami (FL)
The Bengals boast over $39 million in salary cap room, so they can spend most of that on defense and perhaps a playmaker or one offensive lineman.
On the surface, it appears the defense really needs work, yet as long as Jackson and defensive end Carl Lawson are re-signed, there’s reason to believe that side of the ball will bounce back. Run stuffer D.J. Reader will be back at defensive tackle after missing most of the season due to injury, as will 2020 opt out Josh Tupou. That pair alone should go a long way in upgrading Cincinnati’s 29th-ranked rush defense. Prized free-agent corner Trae Waynes is also going to make his Bengals debut in 2021 after being out all of last season.
Sewell, Smith and Jordan present Cincinnati with three immediate starters who address serious needs right away and should be suited for long-term success thanks to the presence of Burrow.
To model after another AFC North team, we saw how bad Baker Mayfield looked behind an underwhelming offensive line in 2019. What did the Cleveland Browns do? They signed Jack Conklin in free agency, drafted Jedrick Wills in the top 10 and proceeded to have Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked o-line unit. For context, Cincy ranked 30th out of 32 teams.
Imagine what Burrow and Mixon could do with so much improvement in the trenches. It’d also help the Bengals control possession better, complement the rebuilding defense and, most importantly, protect their young star quarterback.