When the cart came out onto FedEx Field to carry Joe Burrow off the turf, all hope for an exciting stretch run went out the window.
Following their 20-9 loss to the Washington Football Team, the 2-7-1 Cincinnati Bengals are in prime position to capture a top-five draft pick for a second-straight season.
Let's take a look at where things stand in the current draft order, along with some of the Bengals' options.
The Draft Landscape
There are six games left to play, but the Bengals might not move from their current position the rest of the season. Above them sit the New York Jets and the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jets are in pole position to become the third team in NFL history to finish 0-16. The 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns are the only other winless teams in league history.
Gang Green plays teams in the playoff race in every contest until the finale against New England. They could luck into a win, but they'd have to go 3-3 to slip past the Bengals, assuming Cincinnati loses the rest of their games.
To get a sense of how bad things are in Jacksonville, look at the news drop out of Duval County Thursday morning. Mike Glennon will be making his first NFL start since 2017. The Gardner Minshew Experience was fun to open the season, but he wasn't the answer, and neither is Glennon. Luckily for Jaguars fans, they'll get their franchise quarterback soon enough. Jacksonville has a slightly easier schedule (they play at Minnesota and host the Bears), but they will be underdogs in every game
The first two teams in the draft order would have to improve dramatically for the Bengals to move up, and things are just as distant on the other side. Six teams currently pace right behind Cincinnati with three wins: The Cowboys, Chargers, Giants, Falcons, Texans and Washington.
Dallas, Washington, and New York are closer to leading their division than getting the No. 1 pick, so they have every reason to keep winning. Los Angeles has been snake-bit all season and figure to win a couple of games down the stretch behind phenom quarterback Justin Herbert. Houston could win on Thursday against the Lions. They should be favored at home against the Bengals and has no reason to move up because their pick goes to Miami.
Then finally, there is Atlanta, who I saved for last because they could be the one wild card that vaults over Cincinnati. The Falcons remaining opponents have a combined 64.5 winning percentage. That is easily the toughest slate for any team, besting the Jets by three percentage points. The Falcons have won three of their past five games since moving on from head coach Dan Quinn, representing a chance for interim coach Raheem Morris to hold onto the gig with a strong finish. Bengals fans are hoping Morris can blow expectations out of the water and keep winning.
Third Pick Options
Nothing is certain, but the Bengals will likely pick in the top three for a second-straight season. That has happened one other time in franchise history. Cincinnati drafted defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson and running back Ki-Jana Carter with the No. 1 pick in 1994 and 1995. The 90s were a nightmare that diehard fans do not want to relive. The good news is they've found their franchise quarterback, which is something those teams in the 90s could never say.
That is where the ultimate question arises. Do they wear out the phone dial looking for a trade or take the franchise offensive tackle? It all comes down to what value lies in the trade package. The third pick has been traded twice in the past five years with differing returns.
Back in 2018, Indianapolis traded a first-round pick (3rd) to the Jets in exchange for the Jets’ first-rounder (6th), two second-round selections (37th and 49th), and a second-round selection in 2019. While the year before San Francisco traded the No. 2 overall pick to Chicago in exchange for Chicago’s first, third, and fourth-round picks (3rd, 67th, and 111th), as well as a third-round pick in 2018.
The Colts famously remade their whole offensive line with the Darnold haul, drafting top-tier talents in guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Braden Smith. A package like that could be very enticing to a Bengals team that needs help everywhere besides safety and quarterback.
Despite all of their needs, their biggest issue is the offensive line, and in this draft, Penei Sewell reigns supreme. It's a little too early for a full-scale draft prospect breakdown on Sewell, but as the clear cut top offensive lineman, he could put the Bengals in a tough spot.
NFL teams trade up in the first round for one thing: Quarterbacks. The only teams in the top-12 that could be looking for a new signal-caller are Washington and Atlanta. Will Washington want to trade up for the third-best quarterback prospect? Possibly, but they could also be content with one more season of Alex Smith.
Meanwhile, Matt Ryan on the back-nine of his career in Atlanta and a new coach may want to move on. The Falcons currently hold the eighth pick, meaning the package would be similar to the 2018 Jets. Sewell probably won't fall to pick No. 8. Are a couple of extra draft picks worth giving up a plug-and-play offensive tackle?
This decision is a lot to juggle for a franchise at a crossroads. The choices made over the next eight months are going to shape the decade, and most importantly, Burrow's future. The free-agent signings this offseason were well received, but also highlighted some blindness.
Burrow is this franchise, and keeping him healthy has to shape everything this team does between now and when he comes back. What they decide to do with their first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft will have a ripple effect for years to come.
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