Bengals' draft haul caps successful offseason in Cincinnati

James Rapien

The Bengals emerged from the NFL Draft with seven pieces that project to be a big part of their future, capping a successful offseason in Cincinnati. 

The roster looks much different than it did on Dec. 29 when they beat the Browns in the season finale at Paul Brown Stadium. 

The Bengals completely overhauled the defense. They added five projected starters in free agency and drafted four more players that are expected to contribute right away.

"We really helped ourselves — not just this weekend, but really, over the last month-and-a-half," head coach Zac Taylor said just minutes after the Bengals picked Purdue linebacker Markus Bailey with their final draft selection. "We put ourselves in a really good position — not only from starters that we’ve acquired, but players that are going to add depth and value there. I’m really excited about how the weekend has shaken out.”

The Bengals believe this could be the start of something special in Cincinnati. Here are my biggest takeaways from a successful draft weekend.

Joe Cool

National analysts have speculated about Joe Burrow's willingness to play in Cincinnati for months. Some said he should "pull an Eli" and demand to be traded like Eli Manning did during the 2004 NFL Draft. Others believed Burrow would fail to reach his full potential with the Bengals. 

Not only was Burrow excited to be taken by Cincinnati with the No. 1 pick, but he also went out of his way to praise owner Mike Brown and the coaching staff in his introductory press conference. 

“I’m excited to be his [Mike Brown's] quarterback for hopefully a long time," Burrow said. "Every single conversation I had with Coach Taylor and Callahan [Brian Callahan] and Pitcher [Dan Pitcher] was very, very positive. They made me very, very excited to become a Cincinnati Bengal.”

Burrow was impressive during his 30-minute session with the Cincinnati media. He admitted the process wouldn't be easy and knows the history of the organization.

The Bengals' last playoff win was Jan. 6, 1991. Burrow was born nearly six years later on Dec. 10, 1996. 

The Bengals are banking on the 23 year old to take them to new heights. 

"I’m going to work as hard as I can to bring winning to Cincinnati and I know the people around me will as well," Burrow said. "Whatever they need me to do, I’m going to do it. Hopefully I can bring something to the team that is positive and brings about wins.”

After months of speculation, Burrow left no doubt that he was happy to be going to Cincinnati, and he was doing it with one thing on his mind: winning. 

Defense wins championships

The Bengals signed six free agents on defense, including five projected starters. Their goal was to remake a unit that allowed over 26 points per game last season and finished 29th in yards allowed (393.7). 

The offseason theme continued during the draft. Four of their seven picks addressed holes that remained after a successful haul in free agency. 

The Bengals tripled down on linebacker, a position that they've ignored in the past. They added three athletic, fast players that are capable of playing on all three-downs. 

"At the end of the day, those guys were there, and we felt like we had to grab them," Taylor said. "We didn’t necessarily go into the day saying we had to draft three (linebackers), but the way it shook out, those guys are going to bring value to us and have a good chance to get on the field. So we felt like (they were) too good to pass up.”

The trio of Bailey, Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither could turn a weakness into a strength. The Bengals also signed veteran Josh Bynes in free agency and have second-year linebacker Germaine Pratt, who developed nicely as a rookie.

Taking three linebackers may be excessive, but the Bengals received high praise for each pick. The trio has a chance to fill a need that Cincinnati has had for the better part of a decade. 

The Bengals' defense had a bunch of holes a few months ago. They no longer have an obvious weakness. They're young at some positions, but the defensive line should be much better than it was a season ago. The second and third levels of the defense have been completely remade. 

“This has been a proud place when it comes to defense for a long, long time, and it hasn’t been that way [great] the last few years," defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. "It’s our job to evaluate talent and get younger bodies in here that can compete for spots, and who ends up starting will play itself out. Our job is to get a pool to create competition, and then the best guys will bubble up and play. We’re doing that both with free agents, and the draft.”

O Captain! My Captain!

Six of the seven players the Bengals drafted were named captains by their college teammates. Multiple picks were coaches' sons and young men that are known for their character.

Burrow was as impressive as any No. 1 pick could be in an introductory press conference. 

Tee Higgins' response to becoming a Bengal was one of the top moments of the weekend. 

"Just getting the call from my favorite team in the NFL, it’s just surreal," Higgins said with a giant smile. "Being able to call myself a Cincinnati Bengal – it’s crazy."

They drafted five captains with their last five selections in rounds 3-7. The Bengals added players that should be assets both on the field and in the locker room.

“It’s a mixture of guys that have talent and fit our needs," Taylor said. And, on top of that, (they) have the high character, and intangibles, and the work ethic, and the consistency that we’re looking to add as well. It’s not just, ‘Let’s take a nice guy that tries to do things the right way, but can’t play a lick.’ We identified the guys that had a combination of both, and we felt really good about adding all of them.”

Weapons galore

There were so many people that wondered if Burrow would be set up for success in Cincinnati during the pre-draft process. Some national analysts said the Dolphins would be a better fit, while others thought he would succeed in any place but Cincinnati. 

Say what you want about the Bengals' history, but Burrow may have the best weapons that any No. 1 pick has had in decades. 

How many rookie quarterbacks walk into weapons as talented and as accomplished as the Bengals' skill players? He'll be playing with a seven-time Pro Bowler in A.J. Green, a two-time 1,000 yard receiver in Tyler Boyd and a two-time 1,000 yard rusher in Joe Mixon. Burrow will also have former first round pick John Ross, who showed flashes last season and could thrive with a new quarterback. 

The Bengals weren't done. They wanted to ensure Burrow had some stability at wide receiver moving forward with Green and Ross in contract years, so they selected Higgins with the No. 33 pick. 

Giving Burrow a 6-4, 215 pound target that excels at making contested catches was a no-brainer. Higgins, 21, had success with back shoulder throws at Clemson and should make an immediate impact on offense. 

The Bengals have the offensive firepower to run the 5-man protection packages that Burrow had so much success with at LSU. Can you imagine a linebacker or a small corner on an island against Higgins or Green? Boyd is capable of beating any defensive back in a one-on-one situation. There are so many possibilities for this offense and it's because they've invested premium assets into each of their skill positions.

The rookie signal-caller should feel right at home at Paul Brown Stadium. 

Rome wasn't built in a day 

The Bengals' roster isn't perfect. There were going to be some holes, even after free agency and the draft. 

It's hard to fill every void in one offseason, especially on a 2-14 team. The offensive line is a concern, but it still projects to be better than it was in 2019. 

Jonah Williams will return to the field after missing all of last season. He suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder during minicamp. 

The 2019 first round pick will start at left tackle this season. Even if he's average, he'll be an upgrade. 

The Bengals also signed Xavier Su'a Filo in free agency. He's the front-runner to start at right guard. Trey Hopkins offers stability at center and the team expects Mike Jordan to take a step forward at left guard. 

The glaring hole is at right tackle. Bobby Hart, Fred Johnson and sixth round pick Hakeem Adeniji will compete for the starting job. 

"I just think that’s kind of how it [the draft] fell," offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said when asked why they didn't address offensive line earlier in the draft. "We had players that we liked graded higher than some of the linemen on the board at the time we picked. Sometimes that’s just how the draft unfolds. You’re trying to take the best players you can find, your highest graded players and that’s kind of what we’ve done through this process."

The Bengals were never going to be able to fill all of their pre-draft needs with seven picks. They were open to trading down, but that would've meant potentially missing out on Higgins or Wilson and taking a player they had a lower grade on at that position. 

It was unrealistic to expect a 2-14 team to fill all of its' needs in three months. They completely remade their defense, added a franchise quarterback and have at least two new starters on the offensive line. 

They didn't reach to fill a need, which was the right decision. The roster has improved, but the 'rebuild' process is going to take more than one offseason.

The Bengals selected top players, earned high marks from national outlets, addressed multiple weaknesses and found their franchise quarterback. That's a successful draft in my book. 

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