The Cincinnati Bengals are a famously conservative organization when it comes to making bold player transactions in the NFL Draft and free agency. They haven’t traded up in the draft since 1995.
But in recent years, Cincinnati has spent more money in free agency, and just landed a new franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow with the first overall pick in 2020.
In the modern NFL, it’s imperative to capitalize on the circumstances when a QB is playing on his rookie contract. If he hits — and as long as Burrow recovers from his major knee injury suffered last season, it looks like he will — guess what? A huge payday is inevitable.
So, Cincinnati can take its sweet time, build through the draft, and keep making calculated decisions every offseason in free agency to slowly improve the team. By the time that happens, Burrow will probably need to get paid.
That sounds pretty boring, right? Unlikely to succeed, even.
There’s a forward-thinking, bold, mind-boggling and even seemingly unrealistic strategy to deploy that’s counter to any precedent Cincinnati has set.
If there were a way to peek into the future and glimpse an alternate timeline of history, you can bet the Bengals would love to see how this epic scenario would play out. Or, they could just execute this ambitious plan in real life, revolutionize the NFL Draft and fundamentally change how front offices around the league conduct business forever.
Buckle up. This is about to get nuts.
Cincinnati Bengals’ increased spending and improving reputation aren’t enough
While there are some decent pieces on the Bengals’ 2021 roster, they’re obviously lacking in certain areas. Most notably, the front seven on defense leaves a lot to be desired, with loads of unproven, young linebackers who can’t defend the run to save their lives, and no viable depth up front on either side of the ball.
One would presume this is what the draft is for. Cincinnati will use the vast majority of its picks to address these areas.
The problem? That won’t be adequate. Mid-to-late-round linebackers litter the Bengals depth chart. Germaine Pratt, Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey. Pratt is excellent in coverage. No way to tell if any of them are true hits.
Cincinnati is hoping Pratt continues to improve his all-around game, and that either Wilson or Davis-Gaither pop in Year 2. Either way, it’s not a great outlook, and with players like K.J. Wright and Avery Williamson still on the free-agent market who can actually play the run and have multiple seasons of great football under their belts, there are better options.
It’s just that so few have viewed the Bengals to be a legitimate free-agent destination. However, that perception is slowly changing, evident in the team’s more recent, aggressive moves to sign players like DJ Reader, Trae Waynes, Trey Hendrickson and Mike Hilton among others to bolster the defense.
Alas, obviously there’s still reason to be skeptical about this team. Look no further than cornerback William Jackson III, who left in free agency for the Washington Football Team. Jackson had some harsh words for the Bengals recently on a Washington radio interview, per Pro Football Talk’s Josh Alper:
“Cincinnati, they got some crude fans, man. Misery loves company…The Bengals […] them dudes, they wonder why they’re not winning. I’m happy I’m out of that thing man. It’s a blessing to get away and I wish them the best, but Washington let’s go from here.”William Jackson III on the Cincinnati Bengals
Money always talks, but having the reputation to back it up goes a long way as well.
The best way for Cincinnati to convince free agents to sign on the dotted line in the next few years and build a legitimately competitive, championship-caliber team is to optimally position Burrow for success. That didn’t happen in 2020, and it led to a serious knee injury due to poor pass protection up front.
Keeping Burrow upright will therefore be the Bengals’ chief priority in the draft, but with such a shaky defense, they can’t really expect to compete this coming season. Maybe in 2022. And that’s assuming multiple rookies provide a significant, instant upgrade in the offensive trenches.
Having a stud signal-caller is more than half the battle when it comes to building a winning NFL team. Congratulations Cincinnati, you appear to have that with Burrow. You’re also not paying him a boatload of cash right now, which means you can be aggressive.
And no, I’m not talking about just free agency. I’m talking draft. It’s not enough for a franchise like the Bengals to slowly, methodically build a better brand. The time is now, before Burrow gets that unwieldy second contract.
The Cincinnati Bengals must realize life is good, but it can be better
A young star quarterback and an improving image around the league, what’s not to like for Cincinnati right now, considering how much of a laughingstock the organization had become in the pre-Burrow era?
That’s the thing. The Bengals can’t be content with that. Doing the minimum to build a winner to begin Burrow’s career would be a downright waste.
The stars have actually aligned in such a way leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft, and little does Cincinnati know, the football gods are smiling down upon the Queen City.
Most Cincinnati Bengals mock drafts you see either have them taking Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, or reuniting Burrow with his former LSU teammate and consensus No. 1 receiver prospect Ja’Marr Chase.
Just look at how much heated debate the Bengals’ Sewell vs. Chase dilemma sparked on ESPN recently:
Either of those picks look like home runs on paper. Pick Chase, and address the offensive line in Rounds 2 and 3. Take Sewell, and focus the next couple picks on filling out areas of need on defense.
As Pedro Pascal’s Maxwell Lord says in Wonder Woman 1984, though: “Life is good, but it can be better.”
Lord is an over-the-top villain, and his greed gets him into serious trouble in the end. In this case, the movie line is more for comedic effect, yet for a notoriously frugal football operation, Cincinnati would reap huge benefits from a greedier mentality.
Indeed, what if the Bengals could have their cake and eat it too? What if they could have Chase and Sewell — and more?
How the Cincinnati Bengals can trade up to the 6th pick in 2021 NFL Draft
The trade value chart from Drafttek.com assigns numerical value to each draft pick. It’s used as a framework by NFL teams to create trade packages and assess how fair or unfair a prospective deal is.
For something as extraordinary as this — getting the opportunity to make back-to-back selections in the first six picks of a draft — some overpaying needs to be happen for Cincinnati to swing this.
Here’s the Bengals-Dolphins blockbuster trade scenario I’ve come up with. It features the numbers from the trade value chart for each pick in parentheses. For the 2022 and 2023 draft choices, the trade chart values are based on the intentionally, overly optimistic assumption that Cincinnati will own the 26th pick in 2022 and the 31st pick in 2023:
- Cincinnati Bengals get: No. 6 overall pick (1600) in 2021 NFL Draft
- Miami Dolphins get: Second round, 38th pick (520); Sixth round, 202nd pick (11)
- First-round pick in 2022 (700)
- Second-round pick in 2022 (310)
- Second-round pick in 2023 (276)
The aggregate trade chart value of the picks the Bengals included in their package comes out to 1817, and as can be seen above, Miami’s sixth overall pick is worth 1600 points.
Would the Dolphins actually agree to this? It doesn’t seem as outlandish as you might think. Again: Stars are aligning here in a very unique way.
Why the trade makes sense for the Miami Dolphins
Fins general manager Chris Grier is among the executive who most covets having a treasure trove of draft picks. The Dolphins had three first-round picks in last year’s draft, and have two Day 1 selections this time around, not to mention another couple second-rounders.
Miami has already traded with the San Francisco 49ers from third overall, only to move back up to sixth in a subsequent deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. It’s not like Grier is averse to moving around.
With the chance to have three second-round picks in 2021, and an extra first- and second-rounder next year, all while still having the 18th overall pick in this year’s draft, how could Grier turn this offer down?
From 2012 through 2015, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor got his start in the NFL in Miami, and Grier was there that whole time, too, having begun his time with the team in 2007. There’s a legitimate connection here.
For all the deserved praise Grier and Dolphins coach Brian Flores deserve for quickly changing the culture in Miami and catalyzing a 10-win 2020 campaign, neither of them can be completely sold on QB Tua Tagovailoa.
In the event Tagovailoa struggles as an NFL sophomore, Grier will have amassed all this draft capital so that in 2022, he can do pretty much whatever he wants and move off him for either an established veteran or the top QB in the draft.
Suddenly, the Cincinnati Bengals have Ja’Marr Chase and Penei Sewell
Now we’re talking.
If Jonah Williams can’t stay healthy at left tackle, Sewell slides in right there. Riley Reiff is only on a one-year contract, so if he walks next offseason, Williams can move over to the right side where he played for some time in college, while Sewell takes over to protect Burrow’s blind side.
In the meantime, Sewell can destroy defenders by adjusting his game and sliding into guard.
And we still get the heartwarming and dynamic passing game combo with Chase joining Burrow. Between Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, Burrow would have three exceptional, younger wideouts to distribute the ball to.
But wait. It gets better.
The Cincinnati Bengals aren’t done trading in the 2021 NFL Draft
In an AFC North division that features two perpetually phenomenal defenses in the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, Burrow is going to need all the help he can get. Also, the Cleveland Browns made huge upgrades to their defense in free agency, so facing them will be no picnic in 2021 and beyond.
What if there was a way for Cincinnati to add even more excitement and electricity to its roster in the draft?
When fans make their return to fill NFL stadiums, one way to keep business booming in that regard is having a loaded team that features frequent fireworks shows on offense.
Let’s throw 2020 out for obvious reasons. The two seasons before that, the Bengals ranked second-worst in home attendance.
Burrow on his own is going to help boost turnout. Teaming him with an offensive lineman prospect of Sewell’s caliber and a phenomenal receiver in Chase will only help.
Why not go for an historic trifecta that’ll make it impossible for anyone in Cincinnati — even those who aren’t into football — to ignore?
How the Cincinnati Bengals can trade for the 7th pick in 2021 NFL Draft
Again, we’re going to use the same trade value chart from before and break this down the same way.
Who owns the No. 7 pick? The Detroit Lions. They are about to take on a huge rebuilding project under new GM Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell. Their first-round pick in 2021 isn’t going to single-handedly shift their fortunes.
Here’s the ultimate Lions-Bengals trade, as Cincinnati triples down on its commitment to Burrow and winning now:
- Cincinnati Bengals get: No. 7 overall pick (1500) in 2021 NFL Draft
- Detroit Lions get: Third round, 69th pick (245) Fifth round, 149th pick (32) Sixth round, 190th pick (15)
- Third-round pick in 2022 (145)
- First-round pick in 2023 (600)
- Third-round pick in 2023 (126)
- First-round pick in 2024 (590)
As with the last trade package, some feloniously optimistic projections were made for where the Bengals will finish in the coming years. Even with those in mind, they sacrifice 1753 trade value points for the 1500 points that this year’s seventh overall pick is worth.
Time to look at the Lions’ side of things, and why they’d consider this.
Why the trade makes sense for the Detroit Lions
Holmes spent a lot of time working in the Los Angeles Rams’ front office before arriving in Detroit. He used his ties from LA to orchestrate the first massive trade of the offseason, when he acquired two first-round picks from the Rams and Jared Goff in exchange for Matthew Stafford.
Prior to taking the Bengals’ coaching gig, Taylor shared multiple years with Holmes in Los Angeles on Sean McVay’s staff. Another connection, similar to the one Taylor has to Grier in Miami.
Even with Holmes’ ties to Goff, no one really views the latter as a franchise quarterback after he flamed out with the Rams. By executing this trade with Cincinnati, Holmes would have three years of multiple first-round picks in each draft to work with.
No one is expecting Detroit to compete in 2021 anyway, so by gathering some more picks to deepen this rookie class and also build toward a bright future, this epic transaction with Cincinnati could be what finally sparks the Lions after decades of futility.
Say hello to your new Cincinnati Bengals
The words “generational talent” are probably used too often, so it’s almost always considered hyperbole when it’s brought up.
In the case of Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, it absolutely applies. Pitts might be the most physically gifted tight end prospect in NFL Draft history, and plugging him into a Bengals offense that has already loaded up with two seemingly can’t-miss rookies could lead to the creation of a truly historic passing attack.
Due to the buzz surrounding Pitts of late, there’s reasons to believe the Atlanta Falcons could take him fourth overall, just one spot ahead of the Bengals. It’s also possible Atlanta either looks to select Matt Ryan‘s eventual successor at QB, or trades out of the pick with a team desperate for a quarterback.
For pure argument’s sake, just say Pitts is the Falcons’ pick at fourth. Northwestern offensive lineman Rashawn Slater, who has the flexibility to play really anywhere on the offensive line, would still be there, and he’s widely viewed as just as much of a can’t-miss player as Sewell is. That’d only aid the effort to keep Burrow protected, so either way, it’s a big win for Cincinnati.
Want to see how good this could look for the Bengals, Dolphins and Lions in some updated mock drafts? Let’s use The Draft Network’s simulator to check it out.
If you’re a fan of any team, please, see how truly awesome this is for all of you.
Updated Cincinnati Bengals 7-round mock draft after unprecedented trades
- First round, 5th pick: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
- First round, 6th pick: Penei Sewell, OL, Oregon
- First round, 7th pick: Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
- Fourth round, 111th pick: Cameron Sample, DL, Tulane
- Seventh round, 235th pick: Thomas Graham Jr., CB, Oregon
Updated Miami Dolphins 7-round mock draft
- First round, 18th pick: Kwity Paye, EDGE, Michigan
- Second round, 36th pick: Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa
- Second round, 38th pick (via CIN): Elijah Moore, WR, Ole Miss
- Second round, 50th pick: Landon Dickerson, iOL, Alabama
- Third round, 81st pick: Michael Carter, RB, North Carolina
- Fifth round, 156th pick: Bobby Brown III, DL, Texas A&M
- Sixth round, 202nd pick (via CIN): Khalil Herbert, RB, Virginia Tech
- Seventh round, 231st pick: Feleipe Franks, QB, Arkansas
*First- and second-round picks in 2022; Second-round pick in 2023.
Updated Detroit Lions 7-round mock draft
- Second round, 41st pick: Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue
- Third round, 69th pick (via CIN): Ifeatu Melifonwu, CB, Syracuse
- Third round, 72nd pick: Tommy Togiai, DT, Ohio State
- Third round, 101st pick: Davis Mills, QB, Stanford
- Fourth round, 112th pick: Alim McNeill, DT, NC State
- Fifth round, 149th pick (via CIN): Shakur Brown, CB, Michigan State
- Fifth round, 153rd pick: Caden Sterns, S, Texas
- Sixth round, 190th pick (via CIN): Malcolm Koonce, EDGE, Buffalo
*Third-round pick in 2022; First- and third-round picks in 2023; First-round pick in 2024.
Why ‘mortgaging the future’ is worth it for the Cincinnati Bengals
Imagine being able to just take the best three players possible, all in a row? Chase and Sewell are locks. Adding Pitts or Slater on top? Hello. As it turns out, the mock simulation left Pitts on the board after the first four picks, so he was the choice.
That sounds worth giving up lots of future draft capital for, because the NFL is a bottom-line business, and teams have to be in it to win now. Too often, Cincinnati hasn’t been.
Here are some other reasons why it’s well worth the risk for the Bengals to “mortgage the future” by giving up all these picks.
Increased interested from free agents
So, circling back to the fact that the Bengals have holes at linebacker and could use some depth on the defensive line, not to mention, possibly an upgraded starter at tackle and on the edge opposite Hendrickson.
You don’t think free agents would want to get in on this party? Veterans would come running to Cincinnati to be a part of this special, fresh, revolutionary football movement.
NFL stands for “Not For Long” for players — and coaches
Getting experienced players to buy in is a big part of what makes a team successful. Taylor can be as good of a coach as he wants — if he doesn’t have the talent or buy-in from key guys, nothing is going to work. Just look at how longtime defensive vets Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins got phased out and/or quit on the team in Dunlap’s case in 2020.
Players don’t have time for a “rebuild.” You can bet fans in Cincinnati are losing patience too, considering the Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season.
The reality for Taylor, too, is that he’s probably going to get canned unless the Bengals win a lot of games in short order. How awesome would it be if they went all-in like this? That’s the type of audacity and big-picture thinking this team needs to evolve and flourish with Burrow leading the charge.
The draft picks don’t mean as much as you think
You might be saying, “Giving up that many draft picks is ridiculous. No team would ever do that. What about the future?”
Yeah, that “future” Cincinnati has planned for hasn’t come to fruition. The team hasn’t won a playoff game in 30 years.
The Bengals are an Exhibit-A, prime example of a team that wants to stay where they are in the draft, and try to get lucky with first-round picks from the position they’re in. Look how well that’s worked out for them.
It took such a nightmarish, bad 2019 for Cincinnati to fall to such depths that it meant receiving the first pick, which it wisely used to take the hometown kid Burrow.
With a legendarily gifted tight end in Pitts, the best offensive lineman prospects in Sewell and Slater and a surefire top wideout in Chase, the Bengals seem almost guaranteed to go 3-for-3 with first-round picks if they do what I’ve proposed. Then, they’d have those players on the team now, to reiterate, while all of them and Burrow hardly cost anything against the salary cap.
An impending salary cap boom, and the value of having young stars
Rather than waiting and hoping future draft picks will pan out, Cincinnati can capitalize on its relationships with the two teams behind them in the first-round draft order, swing some gutsy trades, and revitalize this franchise forever.
Also to consider, in the next two years, the only marquee free agents of their own the Bengals really have to worry about are as follows: Jessie Bates III, Pro Football Focus’ No. 1 safety in 2020.
That’s it. That’s the list.
The NFL salary cap is expected to explode in 2022 and the years after thanks to new TV contracts. As it was, thanks to Burrow, the Bengals would’ve been sitting pretty with money to spend anyway.
In this wild scenario with Chase, Sewell and Pitts joining the fold with him, Cincinnati gets four legitimate, probable stars on offense in place, on rookie deals, and get to enjoy seeing their cap space skyrocket.
If Joe Burrow busts, the Cincinnati Bengals are irrelevant anyway
For those worried Burrow won’t be the same after his 2020 injury and thus would render all these moves pointless, well, you can bet that in the unlikely event that this winds up being the case, any QB would love to come to play with Chase, Pitts, Higgins and Boyd to throw to.
In the more probable outcome, Burrow once again proves his trademark resilience and toughness and comes back firing.
What better way to reassure the fanbase and organization that there’s a singular, confident vision and belief that Burrow will finally deliver the Bengals a Super Bowl than by doing everything possible to allow him to succeed?
With an offense like this, players would be fighting to sign up to be a part of the team, and opponents would be in a panic attempting to defending it — and be flustered trying to keep up with its own offense.
Yes, the Cincinnati Bengals could spark a revolution in the 2021 NFL Draft. It probably won’t happen, but darned if I didn’t at least try to convince you that it’s a brilliant idea.