5 Positions the Cincinnati Bengals Will Be Watching at the Scouting Combine
The Cincinnati Bengals, like all other teams in the NFL, will be using the upcoming NFL Scouting Combine to get a closer look at players that have been on their draft boards for months as well as to gauge the overall talent level of particular positions of interest. What they see next week will likely heavily inform their draft-day strategies and serve to raise and drop the stocks of potential future Bengals.
Here are five positions the Bengals will be paying close attention to at this year's combine, as well as a few players who could catch their eye.
It's not a question of whether or not the Cincinnati Bengals will draft a running back this year—it's a question of when they'll choose to do it. And what they see at the NFL Scouting Combine will do a lot to tip the scales in one direction or another.
What the Bengals need this year is someone fast and elusive to complement BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Backs of this nature can be found in both early and late rounds of the draft, so what they see out of the running backs at the combine should help determine when they'd like to use a pick on one.
Though Alabama's Eddie Lacy's name has come up a few times in connection with the Bengals, chances are they'd need to take him in the first round if they want him. That's quite a high price to pay, of course, especially when first-round running backs are no sure thing. However, if he's impressive at the Combine, then the Bengals may feel more confident in making him an early-round priority.
North Carolina's Giovanni Bernard may be a better choice for the Bengals as someone they could land in the second round, especially considering they have the Oakland Raiders' high pick in that round. Bernard isn't as well-known a name as Lacy, but he's a fast, playmaking back who scored a touchdown in every game in 2012.
Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle could also catch the Bengals' eye at the combine. He's got the speed the team needs as well as blocking abilities which make him well-rounded. And as a third-round pick, he wouldn't be too much of a gamble.
Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is about to become an unrestricted free agent and doesn't seem like he'll get a new contract from the Bengals. While the team picked up Vontaze Burfict from last year's rookie free-agent pool, and though he's played middle linebacker in college, he performed well on the outside in his first season and he may very well stay there.
But regardless of which linebacker position Burfict plays in 2013, without Maualuga (and potentially Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard, who too are free agents), the Bengals will need depth at the very least.
One option is Georgia's Alec Ogletree, who Bleacher Report's Matt Miller sees the team taking in the first round. Miller has Ogletree as an outside linebacker in Cincinnati despite playing in the middle in college. That would likely push Burfict to the middle, with Ogletree headed to the weakside to stop running backs and work in coverage.
The Bengals could also take a long look at Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, who could be a second-round pick—or even a first-rounder, if his combine performance serves to improve his slightly slipped stock. Also of early-round interest to the Bengals could be LSU's Kevin Minter, who is both fast and physical—though, again, this would likely move Burfict to the middle.
Like running back, the Bengals could go with an inside linebacker in either early or late rounds. This will depend heavily on how this group performs at the combine, though odds are better that they'd prefer to hit the position early on if they saw someone with the right combination of talents.
While Reggie Nelson performed well at free safety this past season, the strong safety position is still a work in progress. The Taylor Mays experiment didn't entirely pay off, so much so that they had to bring back Nate Clements to play the position in 2012.
The position is such a priority for the Bengals this year that ESPN's Mel Kiper has them addressing it in the first round, taking Kenny Vaccaro of Texas with their 21st-overall pick.
According to Kiper, picking Vaccaro would in some ways kill two birds with one stone for the Bengals. His coverage skills are superb, which makes him an excellent addition to their secondary, but his ability to stop the run and play close to the line of scrimmage would bolster their linebacker play.
Florida's Matt Elam may be of interest to the Bengals as well, as he has similar traits to Vaccaro but may be available to them in the second round, should linebacker interest them greater in the first. USC's T.J. McDonald could also be an option with their late second-round pick.
What they'll need to see from any safety prospect is versatility. Anyone they'll be looking at with any seriousness will need to be talented against both the run and the pass as well as display the ability to rush the passer. This isn't a developmental position for the Bengals this year—they need a starting-caliber player, not someone who can marinate on special teams while he gets his kinks ironed out.
It seemed that the Cincinnati Bengals had an embarrassment of riches at cornerback this year, but their surplus was of huge benefit. At any given moment, it seemed like half of their corners were dealing with injuries of some kind, including a knee problem suffered by 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick that resulted in him playing just 43 snaps on the season.
Three of the Bengals veteran corners—Adam Jones, Terence Newman and Nate Clements (who spent most of the year at safety)—are set to be unrestricted free agents this year, and Jones may be the only to return. So the Bengals will yet again need to use a draft pick at the position this year.
This isn't a first-three-rounds priority for the Bengals; instead, what they need here is depth. The combine will be an opportunity for the Bengals to further identify diamonds in the rough at corner who they could snap up in the fourth or fifth round.
William and Mary's B.W. Webb could be one of these finds. His stock rose after an impressive Senior Bowl week and if he can put on weight, he'll be even more effective in the NFL. His punt return skills also makes him an attractive addition; special teams contributions will be important for any corners the Bengals take in the middle rounds.
If the Bengals want to add someone to contribute in the nickel, then Southeast Louisiana's Robert Alford could be an option. He's shown skill in both man and zone coverage, but he's a bit small, at 5'9", which makes him less likely to be an every-down starter.
Though the Bengals have an excellent defensive line, anchored by tackle Geno Atkins and end Michael Johnson, the team could use more pass-rushers on the roster. Further, Johnson could be out the door in free agency, as well as fellow ends Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers. Though the Bengals do have the cash to keep at least two of these men around, there's no guarantee of it. Especially if they can find someone comparable and less expensive in the draft.
Depending on how free agency pans out, the Bengals could be in the market for a defensive end either early on or near the end of the draft. It all depends on if they'll need a starter come April or simply depth or a situational pass-rusher. What they see out of the ends in the combine will help inform their upcoming decisions with their free agents.
From big-name players like Bjoern Werner, Barkevious Mingo and Ezekiel Ansah to second- or third-round prospects like Alex Okafor and Datone Jones, nearly every pass-rush capable 4-3 defensive end (or versatile 3-4 outside linebacker) is in play.
Some of those big names could see their draft stock slip after the combine, allowing the Bengals to grab them in the second round, or a marginal talent could stand out enough to warrant the Bengals to take him in the first round.
The Bengals have four picks over the first three rounds of this year's draft, and it stands to reason that they'll be choosing a defensive end, a linebacker, a safety and a running back with them. However, what happens at the combine will do much to determine in what order they make those selections.