Last year, the Bengals hit a pair of home runs with their first-round and second-round picks, snaring receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton. This year, with an extra first-round pick thanks to the trade of a quarterback who was never going to play for the Bengals again, Marvin Lewis and comany have a chance to push the franchise to heights not seen since the days of Boomer Esiason. To get there, the Bengals will need to address several key areas of need.
Running back: Cedric Benson is gone, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis needs help. The dilemma for the Bengals will be to determine how high soon the position should be addressed, given the rash of talented players available in later rounds and/or after the draft ends. Bernard Scott had been a capable backup for Benson, but a 3.4-yard average in 2011 is troubling. Ideally, the Bengals would find a Darren Sproles-type complement — or, for the old folks like me, the next James Brooks.
Cornerback: Even with Adam Jones back and Terence Newman in the fold, the Bengals need help — young help — at this suddenly critical position, given the proliferation of passing. Newman is 33 and Nate Clements is 32 and every cornerback other than 24-year-old Brandon Ghee is at least 27. With Leon Hall coming off a torn Achilles’ tendon, a guy like Janoris Jenkins will be tempting with the second first-round pick. If he slips through to the 53rd overall spot in round two, it would be a shock if the Bengals don’t take him.
Defensive end: In addition to covering the receivers, putting the quarterback on his rear end gives the defense the best chance of stopping the passing game. They’ve signed a couple of former first-round busts in Derrick Harvey and Jamaal Anderson, which at best offsets the departure of Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker. Using a first-round pick on a defensive end who can bust a quarterback’s chops (legally) would do much more to help the Bengals find a way to the top of the division — and to the top of the conference. One of those two first-round picks should be used on a guy like Nick Perry or Whitney Mercilus.
Receiver: After Green, the depth chart looks like a half-empty kiddie pool. Brandon Tate and Jordan Shipley and several nobodies. With Green certain to attract double coverage continuously in 2012, the Bengals need someone who can take advantage of single coverage. Ideally, they would have gotten someone via free agency. But still reeling from the failed Antonio Bryant experiment (and still, you know, cheap), the Bengals didn’t sign one of the many available veteran wideouts. They need to use one or two draft picks on a receiver. (Unless they plan to re-sign T.O.)
Tight end: As more and more teams have moved toward having a pair of pass-catching tight ends on the field at any given time, the Bengals should get someone they can put across the line from Jermaine Gresham. The problem is that there aren’t many capable tight ends in this year’s draft, which could cause some teams to reach. Which is something the Bengals, to their credit, don’t often do.
The Bengals have the foundation to contend in 2012 and beyond. And if they come away from the 2012 draft with even one player who has the impact on the team that Green and Dalton had in 2011, they’ll be back in the playoffs, again.