But that young roster is aging and the depth has been riddled with free-agent defections the last two years, which means the Bengals will need whomever they select at No. 9 Thursday night to come in and be a difference maker as a rookie.
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There are no glaring needs, but there are plenty of holes. And that gives the Bengals plenty of options, including trading back to acquire a few more picks even though they already own 11, which is tied with Cleveland for the most in the league.
Working under the assumption that Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett and Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas will be gone by the time the Bengals go on the clock (likely between 9:15 and 9:30), here are the five players the Bengals are most likely to draft.
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O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
Credit: Steve Mitchell, USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Steve Mitchell, USA TODAY Sports
Howard gives the Bengals everything they are looking for. He’s an elite prospect who would make an immediate impact, plus he would give the team leverage in contract negotiations with Tyler Eifert, who is entering the final year of his contract. And that’s only if the Bengals are considering re-signing Eifert.
Given Eifert's injury history, the team could deem it too big of a risk to give him the kind of contract his numbers could dictate when he's healthy. Drafting Howard keeps them covered at the position for the next five years.
The biggest question is whether Howard still will be available at 9.
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Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
The shoulder issue is a concern, but the Bengals wouldn’t even be considering him if their medical staff had any doubts, which doesn’t appear to be the case. And the diluted urine sample isn’t the giant red flag some make it out to be.
Linebacker is one of the biggest areas of need for the Bengals, so if Foster is there at No. 9, and he should be, it will be hard to pass on the most complete player at the position.
The shoulder, diluted sample and Foster’s dismissal from the Combine are less likely to dissuade the Bengals than the fact that this is one of the best linebacker classes in recent years, meaning they could find value at that spot on Day 2.
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Johnathan Allen, DT, Alabama
Starting to sense a Crimson theme? Allen is the type of player you wouldn’t expect to still be on the board at No. 9. In fact, he may be gone by No. 5.
But there are a handful of teams in the top eight that need quarterbacks and a couple outside the top 10 who might be willing to trade up, even though the consensus all along has been this is not a top tier class of quarterbacks. The scent of desperation often tends to come wafting through the 24-hour window.
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All it will take for Allen to fall in the Bengals’ lap is a couple of quarterbacks or possibly fast-rising running back Christian McCaffery to vault into the top eight.
With Domata Peko leaving in free agency and Brandon Thompson and Andrew Billings coming off serious knee injuries, the Bengals would be thrilled to land Allen, whom many scouts view as one of the top four prospects regardless of position.
John Ross, WR, Washington
The Bengals have a need for speed, which is Ross’ greatest asset. He broke the 40-yard dash record at the Combine with a 4.22, making him an ideal fit to line up opposite A.J. Green and stretch defenses to their limit.
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Ross caught 17 touchdowns (tied for second most in the nation) last year, so if teams continue to roll coverage toward Green it could lead to a huge rookie season. Whatever production Ross provides, the mere threat he presents with his speed with make Green that much better.
The Bengals drafted cornerback William Jackson in the first round last year, and they haven’t taken a defensive player with their first pick in back-to-back drafts since 2008-09. The offensive position where the biggest need exists is at receiver, and Ross is the best fit at that spot.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Regardless of the type of year Jeremy Hill has, it’s unlikely he re-signs in Cincinnati. The Bengals may have gone rogue in a sense last year by giving Giovani Bernard an extension, but that just makes it all the more unlikely they give Hill a second contract.
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Fournette is viewed by many as the best back in the draft, and he would be an ideal replacement for Hill after 2017 and ideal complement to the shiftier Bernard.
One of the knocks on the powerful Fournette is he doesn’t offer much in the passing game, but if the defense has to walk a safety into the box to account for his presence in the backfield, that’s going to help Andy Dalton throw the ball.