NFL1000: Cincinnati Bengals 2017 NFL Draft Preview

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistApril 21, 2017

NFL1000: Cincinnati Bengals 2017 NFL Draft Preview

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Marvin Lewis has been the Bengals' head coach since 2003, a time when Cincinnati's ultra-cheap ownership didn't seem to think scouting departments were valuable expenses. For years, Lewis had to improvise and make do, and his 118-103-3 record and three losing seasons should be seen as a testament to his abilities—most coaches would not have posted such positive marks under those circumstances. 

    Going into the 2017 season, and coming off a 6-9-1 record, Lewis faces new challenges. Rumors have swirled about his possible firing and retirement, but he's sticking around at least through 2017, and there's a lot to be done.

    This offseason, the team bid farewell to a number of franchise cornerstones: left tackle Andrew Whitworth, right guard Kevin Zeitler, defensive tackle Domata Peko and linebacker Rey Maualuga. In addition, there weren't the kinds of free-agent signings that would lead to instant replacements—especially given the fact that, in 2016, Whitworth and Zeitler might have been the best two players Cincinnati had on offense.

    As they head into the 2017 draft, the Bengals have clear needs along the offensive line and could use depth at running back and receiver. Though the defense was more consistent than the offense in 2016, the Bengals haven't built the paradigm they had when they made the playoffs every year from 2011 through 2015: a team constructed to be deep and talented enough to make up for the deficiencies of quarterback Andy Dalton. Right now, it looks like a rebuild.

Methdology

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    The NFL1000 team of scouts graded a series of important attributes for every player in their positional review. Using a scale starting at zero and going up to anywhere from five to 50 based on the position and the attribute, our scouts graded each player based on their own expertise and countless hours of tape review over the years. Our evaluators had specific positional assignments in their proven fields of expertise.

    Each corresponding position slide was written by the assigned scout.

Quarterback

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Scheme: West Coast hybrid/power

        

    Starter: Andy Dalton

    NFL1000 Score: 66.8/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 24/38

    At this point in Andy Dalton's career, we're just going to have to accept that he is what he is—and isn't what he isn't. He will never be a great deep thrower. He will always challenge his receivers to redefine their catch radiuses. And his work under pressure—both the pressure of opposing defenders and the pressure of the moment—will be left wanting.

    He's an efficient quarterback, and on the surface, his 2016 numbers (364 completions in 563 attempts for 4,206 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions) would seem to put him a cut above the "Alex Smith, Game Manager" category.

    Dalton is both better and worse than a low-ceiling quarterback like Smith—he does have a few more obvious physical attributes, but he also takes more chances that he shouldn't. Some teams would be happy to have a quarterback of Dalton's caliber, but it could also be said that he is the most dangerous kind of field general: good enough to make you avoid thinking about his eventual replacement, but not good enough to transcend his surroundings.

          

    Backup: AJ McCarron

    NFL1000 Score: Did not have enough snaps to qualify

    AJ McCarron has been a big name in the quarterback trade-rumor market, right up there with New England's Jimmy Garoppolo, because he has plied his professional trade under two esteemed offensive coordinators in Cincinnati (Hue Jackson, Ken Zampese), and he looks the part of a fairly efficient player who will help you win more games than he causes you to lose.

    McCarron didn't get any snaps in 2016, so anyone making that assessment is likely going off the three games he started in 2015 as Dalton's injury replacement. Then, he looked all right as long as the defenses weren't too advanced and the scheme was relatively simple. Like Dalton, McCarron is a smart player with obvious physical limitations who sometimes forgets those limitations and plays outside of structure to his own detriment.

          

    Backup: Jeff Driskel

    NFL1000 Scores: Did not have enough snaps to qualify

    Jeff Driskel alternated between awesome and awful in Florida's offense from 2011 through 2014, and he finally gained a measure of consistency when he transferred to Louisiana Tech in his final collegiate season. He's got all the physical attributes you'd want in an NFL quarterback, but he'll need to prove that his decision-making doesn't regress to an awful level against stronger competition. His unimpressive 2016 preseason for the 49ers didn't help his case.

             

    Team Need: 3/10

    Potential Draft Fits: Chad Kelly (Mississippi), Joshua Dobbs (Tennessee)

Running Back

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    Scheme: Power/hybrid

          

    Starter: Jeremy Hill

    NFL1000 Score: 71.5/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 30/82

    Jeremy Hill had an up-and-down 2016 season. While he did have nine touchdowns, he averaged a pedestrian 3.8 yards per carry and had nine games with fewer than 50 yards rushing. Though he has shown flashes of brilliance in his young career, Hill struggled with consistency the last two seasons.

    He is a good inside runner with quick feet, playing north and south. He will lower his shoulder on contact, has the power to break tackles and keeps his feet moving around defenders. Hill does not always look like he is running hard, but when he does he is a load to tackle.

    He is not great in the passing game, but the Bengals do not expect him to do much because of Giovani Bernard's presence. Hill's hands are average, and he doesn't always play confidently as a receiver. Hill will be a free agent in 2018, so the Bengals have to prepare for the future in this draft.  

          

    Backup: Giovani Bernard

    NFL1000 Score: 71.9/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 26/82

    The Bengals have great balance on offense, and Bernard is a major reason why. While Bernard tore his ACL in Week 11, he is expected to be fully recovered by the time training camp starts, which is fantastic news for Bengals fans.

    When healthy, Bernard is a dynamic receiving running back. He has exceptional quickness, burst and play speed. Bernard has good change of direction, with the feet to make defenders miss and the balance on contact to work upfield.

    In the open field he is excellent because of his top-end speed. In the passing game Bernard gets open with ease. He has great hands and is a polished route-runner. Overall, Bernard is a special player, and the Bengals will rely heavily on a healthy version in 2017.

          

    Backup: Cedric Peerman

    NFL1000 Scores: Did not have enough snaps to qualify

    Cedric Peerman has been a backup with the Bengals since 2010 and only saw six carries in 2016. The Bengals are top-heavy at running back, so it is not easy for him to get on the field. He does play a role on special teams, but if the Bengals draft a running back, his roster spot could be in question heading into the fall.

               

    Team Need: 5/10

    Potential Draft Fits: Jamaal Williams (BYU), D'Onta Foreman (Texas)

Wide Receiver

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Scheme: West Coast/hybrid

           

    Starter: A.J. Green

    NFL1000 Score: 75.8/100

    NFL1000 Position Ranking: 1/155

    Despite missing six games with a leg injury, A.J. Green finished the season as the top wide receiver in the NFL1000 project. What propelled him to the top of the rankings are two talents that make him such a dangerous receiver: route-running and his ability at the catch point.

    Green is a highly skilled route-runner who can beat defenders either at the line of scrimmage in press coverage situations or with his speed and change-of-direction talent at the top of his stem. He also makes the difficult catches look routine, and his big wingspan plays a huge role in helping Andy Dalton or AJ McCarron.

    Green's scores in those two traits topped the class this past season. He is one of the game's more dominant X-receivers, and if he returns to the lineup healthy this season, expect another strong campaign.

           

    Starter: Brandon LaFell

    NFL1000 Score: 68.5/100

    NFL1000 Position Ranking: 29/155

    Veteran Brandon LaFell played a much bigger role for the Bengals offense than expected last season, particularly after the injury to Green. LaFell primarily operated on the boundary as a Z-receiver and was used a bit as the X in Green's absence.

    He is at his best when running routes along the sideline, such as comeback or out routes, when he can sell receivers on vertical routes and then execute a quick cut toward the boundary, using his change-of-direction ability. In addition, LaFell is a solid contributor in the blocking game. With Green healthy, LaFell will have more chances to contribute to the Bengals offense this season.

           

    Starter: Tyler Boyd

    NFL1000 Score: 64.6/100

    NFL1000 Position Ranking: 74/155

    Tyler Boyd saw significant playing time for Cincinnati in 2016, appearing in all 16 contests with two starts. The rookie from Pittsburgh caught 54 passes for 603 yards and a touchdown. Boyd was used primarily out of the slot this past season and was effective on option routes or pivot routes while working against underneath coverage.

    Cincinnati also used him as a runner at times, and his 39-yard carry against Cleveland in Week 14 is an example of what Boyd brings to an offense as a ball-carrier. For a rookie, he was effective on the routes described above, and with a fully healthy offense he should find advantageous matchups in 2017.

           

    Starter: Alex Erickson

    NFL1000 Score: 58.9/100

    NFL1000 Position Ranking: 144/155

    Alex Erickson was primarily a kick returner for the Bengals during his rookie season, but when Green was lost for the season he assumed more of a role as a receiver. He finished the season with six receptions for 71 yards. The Bengals used his quickness and change-of-direction skill in the screen game when he was on the field with the offense, but at times he showed an ability to get open down the field in the vertical passing game by relying on his speed.

    In his second NFL season, Erickson will likely see more of a role as a receiver.

     

    Starter: Cody Core

    NFL1000 Score: 61.6/100

    NFL1000 Position Ranking: 115/155

    Rounding out the trio of 2016 rookie receivers is sixth-rounder Cody Core out of Ole Miss. He played in only one game in the first half of the season, but after Green's injury, Core took on more of a role as a receiver.

    He caught 17 passes for 200 yards last year, with eight of those receptions coming in Week 16 against the Houston Texans. At times Core struggled at the catch point in contested situations or against the press, but in off-coverage situations he was able to sell his routes, maintain the cushion and be a reliable receiver. Like Erickson, he'll look to assume more of a role in the year ahead.

          

    Team Need: 3/10

    Potential Draft Fits: Corey Davis (Western Michigan), Chris Godwin (Penn State), Curtis Samuel (Ohio State), Josh Reynolds (Texas A&M), Amara Darboh (Michigan), Isaiah Ford (Virginia Tech), Taywan Taylor (Western Kentucky)    

Tight End

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    Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

    Scheme: West Coast/hybrid

            

    Starter: Tyler Eifert

    NFL1000 Score: 68.5/100

    NFL1000 Position Ranking: 10/96

    When healthy, Tyler Eifert is one of the more effective tight ends in the NFL. But his health has been an issue the past few seasons. He was lost for the year in the 2014 season opener with a dislocated elbow. Eifert returned to action for the entire 2015 season and earned a spot in the Pro Bowl. But he hurt his ankle in that game, and the injury kept him on the shelf until Week 7 in 2016.

    Despite appearing in only eight games, he caught 29 passes for 394 yards and five scores, but he missed the season finale with a back injury. Eifert is a great red-zone threat and is effective on seam routes, which have been a staple of the Bengals offense the past few years.

    In addition to his ability as a receiver, Eifert was strong last year as a blocker, and his grade in that trait put him near the top of all tight ends in the NFL1000 project.

            

    Backup: Tyler Kroft

    NFL1000 Score: 60.4/100

    NFL1000 Position Ranking: 58/96

    Tyler Kroft entered the league in 2015 following a career at Rutgers, and he appeared in all 16 games, catching 11 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. When Eifert was sidelined to start the season, Kroft saw a lot of work as a tight end, but when Eifert returned to the lineup, Kroft took on more of a supporting role. The bulk of his contributions in 2016 came as an extra blocker, but he can be effective in a limited role as a receiver. Working underneath against zone coverage is his best role.

             

    Backup: C.J. Uzomah

    NFL1000 Score: 64.9/100

    NFL1000 Position Ranking: 30/96

    The Bengals drafted C.J. Uzomah in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL draft, and he appeared in only five contests as a rookie. When Eifert started 2016 with his ankle injury, the Uzomah saw more action, appearing in 10 games with eight starts.

    Despite his background as a blocking tight end, the former Auburn Tiger caught 25 passes for 234 yards in 2016 with one touchdown, which came in the season finale. He is effective on out routes as well as routes to the flat, particularly when he faces off-coverage from a safety or a linebacker. Given his collegiate experience, he is a capable blocker when used in the running game.

            

    Backup: Ryan Hewitt

    NFL1000 Scores: 59.5/100

    NFL1000 Position Ranking: 68/96

    Ryan Hewitt has been a reserve tight end/H-back for the Bengals the past few seasons and is relied upon primarily as a blocker. Last year he caught only two passes for 13 yards, but he appeared in all 16 games. In his role, he is effective at blocking whether on the wing or as a lead back from the backfield.

                    

    Team Need: 1/10 

    Potential Draft Fits: None

Left Tackle

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    Al Pereira/Getty Images

    Scheme: Zone

          

    Starter: Cedric Ogbuehi

    NFL1000 Score: 66.9/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 35/38 (Graded at RT)

    After being selected 21st overall in the 2015 draft, Cedric Ogbuehi has struggled to consistently perform at a starter's level. He started 12 games in 2016, 11 of which were at right tackle, with one start in Week 16 at left tackle, his collegiate position.

    In order for Ogbuehi to consistently have success, he must work to maintain a functional base in both pass protection and as a run-blocker. Ogbuehi's lack of a functional base has led to his power being negated and his feet being left out of position. Both have been detrimental.

    With Andrew Whitworth's departure, Ogbuehi figures to be the lead candidate to take over the left tackle position in his third season.

            

    Backup: Andre Smith

    NFL1000 Scores: Did not have enough snaps to qualify

    Cincinnati drafted Andre Smith sixth overall in 2009, and he spent his first seven seasons with the Bengals, accumulating 73 starts. After a one-year hiatus in which he spent 2016 in Minnesota and only started four games before being placed on injured reserve (triceps), Smith returned to Cincinnati. He figures to compete to regain a starting role or at least add veteran depth.

                

    Team Need: 3/10

    Potential Draft Fits: Andreas Knappe (UConn), Chad Wheeler (USC)

Right Tackle

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Scheme: Zone

           

    Starter: Jake Fisher

    NFL1000 Score: Did not have enough snaps to qualify

    As a second-round rookie in 2015, Jake Fisher saw many different roles that included wearing an eligible number (44) and playing tight end and H-back. In 2016 Fisher started three games—all at right tackle—but he also saw game action at left tackle and left guard.

    Fisher did surrender two sacks within the three games he started, but in many regards the second-year man showed why he was a top-60 draft pick, as he displayed physical toughness and for the most part consistent technique.

    Fisher figures to compete for a starting role primarily at right tackle, but Cincinnati has the luxury of two young tackles with experience on both sides whom it can move around.

                

    Backup: Eric Winston

    NFL1000 Score: 70.5/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 22/38

    Eric Winston enters his 12th season and has accumulated 125 career starts, yet only six of those have come over the last three campaigns. Winston's full-time starting days may be behind him, but when he has been called upon, he has provided solid play.

    At this point of his career, Winston has accepted his role as a quality reserve swing-tackle who can be an effective spot starter.

              

    Team Need: 3/10

    Potential Draft Fits: Andreas Knappe (UConn), Chad Wheeler (USC)

Offensive Guard

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Scheme: Zone

         

    Starter: Clint Boling

    NFL1000 Score: 71.0/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 28/78

    The only solid, proven lineman on this Bengals' front, Clint Boling will be a stabilizing force this year. This unit has gone from a top O-line to unproven rather suddenly, and its success will largely depend on if the Bengals' highly drafted replacements, especially at tackle, can hold up.

            

    Starter: Christian Westerman

    NFL1000 Score: Did not have enough snaps to qualify

    We haven't seen any NFL reps from Christian Westerman, but the blend of play strength and fluidity Westerman displayed at Arizona State was impressive. He can step in next year and be a solid starter on the inside. That said, it may be worth bringing in a lower-end established veteran in case the transition takes more time than expected.

            

    Backup: Alex Redmond

    NFL1000 Score: Did not have enough snaps to qualify

    Alex Redmond is an unproven undrafted free agent, and the fact that the UCLA alum is one of the main depth options in his second year highlights how much the Bengals need bodies up front, whether in the draft or with veteran options.

                

    Team Need: 6/10

    Potential Draft Fits: Kyle Kalis (Michigan), Jordan Morgan (Kutztown)

Center

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Scheme: Zone

            

    Starter: Russell Bodine

    NFL1000 Score: 66.1/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 35/38

    Russell Bodine has been a liability on this Bengals front for a while now, and with Kevin Zeitler not by his side anymore, having him in the lineup will be much harder. There are no centers who deserve top-10 consideration in this class, so a first-round upgrade is out, but drafting one should be priority on Day 2.

           

    Backup: T.J. Johnson

    NFL1000 Score: Did not have enough snaps to qualify

    T.J. Johnson is a decent option a backup center, but the answer at this position is likely not on the roster right now. Moving him to guard full time to serve as the sixth offensive lineman after a center is acquired may be for the best.

           

    Team Need: 7/10

    Potential Draft Fits: Ethan Pocic (LSU), Tyler Orlosky (West Virginia)  

Defensive End

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Scheme: 4-3

     

    Starter: Carlos Dunlap

    NFL1000 Score: 68.0/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 17/68

    Carlos Dunlap enjoyed another fine season as the Bengals' best edge defender. As our 17th-ranked 4-3 end, Dunlap graded as a balanced defender against the run and pass. What really helped was his ability to bat passes at the line of scrimmage; he did it 13 times in 2016. Dunlap isn't a quick-twitch rusher, but he makes up for it with length, strength and good balance.

    His starting left defensive end position should be secured for the foreseeable future. Even if the Bengals bring in a high draft pick, Dunlap should still take the majority of the snaps among Cincinnati edge defenders.

         

    Starter: Michael Johnson

    NFL1000 Score: 61.1/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 62/68

    Michael Johnson, 30, may have had his worst year in a Bengals uniform as their starting right defensive end. It looked like age and injuries have finally started to stiffen Johnson, and he lost all ability to turn the corner as a pass-rusher. He would still often win the initial hand fight, but without the burst, agility and balance to fight around the edge, his pass-rush success relied on beating bad offensive linemen or free-rush opportunities.

    As a run defender, Johnson was still willing, but he couldn't impact the game the way he did in years past. His tackle radius and closing speed were all but gone, and Johnson was a shell of his former self.

    Not only should his starting job be in jeopardy, but the Bengals need to draft an edge-rusher to take over in nickel and provide a spark.

           

    Backup: Will Clarke

    NFL1000 Score: 60.9/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 64/68

    Will Clarke enjoyed the best season of his NFL career in his third campaign last year. It wasn't overly impressive, but early in the year, Clarke was able to take advantage of pressures created by the defense to gather sacks. The Bengals started giving Clarke more snaps to see if he would respond with increased production, but that didn't happen. Clarke saw opportunities at right and left defensive end, and nickel defensive tackle.

    There's an open role as an interior pass-rusher in the Bengals' nickel defense, and Clarke may be penciled in for that spot, but the team should make a pick that could fill this role with a better player.

                 

    Team Need: 10/10

    Potential Draft Fits: Solomon Thomas (Stanford), Taco Charlton (Michigan), Derek Barnett (Tennessee)

Defensive Tackle

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Scheme: 4-3

          

    Starter: Geno Atkins

    NFL1000 Score: 77.0/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 2/99

    Geno Atkins finished second in the NFL1000 defensive tackle ranks behind Aaron Donald. Atkins was dominant in every phase of the game last season, and he's rebounded nicely since suffering a torn ACL in 2013. With Domata Peko moving on to the Denver Broncos, Cincinnati desperately needs to find a strong No. 2 option next to Atkins.

           

    Backup: Pat Sims

    NFL1000 Score: 57.1/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 94/99

    Pat Sims isn't a starting-quality defensive tackle, but the Bengals still trotted him out routinely in 2016. He doesn't do anything well, and on a vast majority of NFL teams he'd be a roster-bubble guy. The Bengals need to spend a premium resource in the draft to upgrade Sims.

            

    Backup: Andrew Billings

    NFL1000 Score: Did not have enough snaps to qualify

    Andrew Billings missed the season with a knee injury sustained during training camp. Competition should be brought in for him in case he isn't up to speed.

            

    Team Need: 8/10

    Potential Draft Fits: Malik McDowell (Michigan State), Jaleel Johnson (Iowa), Eddie Vanderdoes (UCLA)

Outside Linebacker

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Scheme: 4-3

               

    Starter: Vontaze Burfict

    NFL1000 Score: 67.6/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 10/46

    Vontaze Burfict is one of the toughest linebackers in the league. He is an aggressive, hard-nosed run defender who does his best work between the tackles. When working to the perimeter, Burfict can lose the foot race, but he is often mentally ahead of the play and can find a way to get to it in time.

    Burfict is quietly a nice coverage player, too. He gets proper depth in his drops and does a good job of reading the concepts in front of him in order to flow to his assignment. Granted, Burfict has issues with playing with consistent effort, but he has the skill set of a top linebacker.

            

    Backup: Vincent Rey

    NFL1000 Score: 65.7/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 13/46

    Vincent Rey is in an interesting spot. He is right around where the line begins to be blurred between being an impact starter versus a top-quality rotational player. Rey can play, though. He is a sufficient run defender, especially in space, and he can hold his own in coverage.

    Playmaking is not Rey's calling card, but he can carry out his assignments consistently enough to allow the rest of the defense to function properly. The Bengals could upgrade over Rey, but it shouldn't be an immediate need.

          

    Backup: Nick Vigil

    NFL1000 Score: Did not have enough snaps to qualify

    Injuries forced Nick Vigil into playing time last year. He's a functional backup and is a nice tackler who won't take himself too far out of plays, both in the run game and in coverage. The Bengals just spent a third-round pick on Vigil last year, so it's unlikely that they plan on spending a premium selection to add competition. It's more likely that they go the late-round/undrafted route.

          

    Backup: P.J. Dawson

    NFL1000 Score: Did not have enough snaps to qualify

    Paul Dawson is a miss for the Bengals, in all likelihood. Since entering the league in 2015, Dawson has failed to show that he is more than a heavy-footed thumper who doesn't have the mental aptitude or aggression to be a thumper.

    He did not play much last season, and there is little reason to believe he is going to get significantly better in the near future. Though he is only the team's fourth outside linebacker, it's probably time for him to go.

               

    Team Need: 3/10

    Potential Draft Fits: Anthony Walker Jr. (Northwestern), Jalen Reeves-Maybin (Tennessee), Paul Magloire Jr. (Arizona)

Inside Linebacker

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Scheme: 4-3

     

    Starter: Kevin Minter

    NFL1000 Score: 71.7/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 21/65

    Kevin Minter signed with the Bengals as an unrestricted free agent from the Arizona Cardinals in March. Until the 2016 season, Minter's career had run hot and cold before he finally impressed as a steadying force for Arizona.

    Next to the undersized Deone Bucannon (6'1", 211 lbs), Minter was as consistent as you can ask for, with a combination of size (6'0", 246 lbs), athleticism and technique that makes him a solid starter. The Arizona defense is predicated on pressure, and Minter's ability to be a trustworthy tackler at the second level allowed that flexibility.

    The Bengals signed him to a one-year contract, essentially paying him to prove that last season wasn't a flash in the pan. The team needed to make significant upgrades at the linebacker position, and signing Minter does that.

    Even still, it wouldn't be a shock to see Cincinnati draft another linebacker early. Minter's contract is a bargain, given the price the Bengals had to pay and the player they're getting in return. With time, Minter could be considered a top-20 inside backer.

           

    Team Need: 3/10

    Potential Draft Fits: Reuben Foster (Alabama), Jarrad Davis (Florida), Zach Cunningham (Vanderbilt), Haason Reddick (Temple), Kendell Beckwith (LSU)

Cornerback

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Starter: Adam Jones

    NFL1000 Score: 67.1/100

    NFL1000 Position Ranking: 30/133

    Adam Jones, a 10-year-veteran, just continues to produce. However, he's not the high-end athlete he once was who gambled on routes. Now he's the wily, old veteran who seems to always be in position to do his job.

    Jones' on-ball production isn't what it once was, as evidenced by his seven passes defensed and lone interception last year. Still, he was about as even-keeled as it got for Cincy. The Bengals knew exactly what they were getting each week. He relies on instincts and recognition over pure athleticism, and in 2016, it worked. He's not trending the right direction, but he's still more than capable at corner.

            

    Starter: Dre Kirkpatrick

    NFL1000 Score: 66.7/100

    NFL1000 Position Ranking: 32/133

    In March, the 27-year-old Dre Kirkpatrick got a big-boy contract from the team that drafted him. On the surface, it's a five-year, $52.5 million deal. However, the Bengals can get out of it after one year with $5.6 million in dead money, which goes down each season after.

    Kirkpatrick had an interesting 2016, playing well in the second half—at least from a target standpoint, as he gave up catches on 10 of 28 targets, per my personal charting. He broke up four of those passes and had an interception. So he was constantly in good position, and a lot of that led to his new contract.

    Kirkpatrick didn't score below a 62 for us after Week 8, so he was playing at a consistent level. He can get a bit grabby, and that leads to penalties. He's also an inconsistent tackler, but he fits the press-coverage profile the Bengals are looking for, and the team is betting on getting the player from the second half of last season.

             

    Nickel: Josh Shaw

    NFL1000 Score: 59.8/100

    NFL1000 Position Ranking: 93/133

    The Bengals went back and forth between Josh Shaw and Darqueze Dennard in the slot, and both underwhelmed. Neither strikes me as a slot corner. The 5'11", 298-pound Dennard has more of the body type but lacks the burst to keep up and, early on, the route recognition. In fairness to him, he didn't play more than 350 snaps last year.

    Shaw played quite a bit more at almost double the snaps (618). He is built more like a free safety than a slot corner at 6'1", 200 pounds, and he's lanky. Shaw doesn't have great anticipation, and at his size he can't afford to be a step late inside.

    You'd expect better ball production than three passes defensed and an interception. Shaw qualified for an NFL1000 grade in all but three games. He graded in the 70s once, the 40s twice and the rest were varied between the mid-50s to the low 60s. That's about where Shaw landed. In extensive snaps, he didn't show much to make you think he can be dependable.

            

    Team Need: 1/10

    Potential Draft Fits: None

Free Safety

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    Scheme: Cover 1

                   

    Starter: George Iloka

    NFL1000 Score: 72.3/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 16/50

    George Iloka is unique in that he's a 6'4", 225-pound safety who is better in coverage than he is in the box. Safeties that size are often typecast as box safeties, almost acting as an extra linebacker in the mold of Kam Chancellor.

    Iloka doesn't have the same physicality in his game. However, he's good in coverage and has the range to play as the single deep safety. In base schemes, Iloka will play deep and allow Shawn Williams to rotate down into the box. Iloka hasn't quite played to his full potential yet, but at 26 he still has time to reach it.

             

    Backup: Derron Smith

    NFL1000 Score: Did not have enough snaps to qualify

    The Bengals have had the luxury of sitting young players behind established starters at safety. One of those young players is Derron Smith, the team's sixth-round pick in 2015. He only played a handful of snaps this past season but flashed potential with good instincts in coverage. However, he was still a little raw against the run. Fortunately, the Bengals can hide him behind Iloka as he continues his development.  

          

    Team Need: 1/10

    Potential Draft Fits: None. The team could consider bringing in camp competition via undrafted free agents.

Strong Safety

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Scheme: Cover 1

     

    Starter: Shawn Williams

    NFL1000 Score: 74.9/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 5/53

    Shawn Williams is one of the most underrated strong safeties in the league. He plays with a mentality that every defensive coach loves. He's an intimidating player who can land huge hits both when filling in against the run and in coverage from a two-deep safety look.

    Williams can get carried away from time to time, taking a few penalties for unnecessary roughness, but for the most part he does a good job staying in control and picking when to land the big hits and when to just make the tackle.

    He fills his run fits excellently, and his coverage was better than most strong safeties who are normally limited to underneath zones. Williams can play as part of a two-deep tandem or even single high on occasion. At 25, he has a bright future ahead if he can perform as consistently as he did last season.

           

    Backup: Clayton Fejedelem

    NFL1000 Score: Did not have enough snaps to qualify

    Clayton Fejedelem, like Derron Smith, is another young late-round draft pick the Bengals can quietly develop behind an established starter. He was the Bengals' seventh-round pick last year and rarely saw the field as he learned from the sidelines.

    On the few occasions he did see the field, Fejedelem made a number of impressive plays against the run, filling his gaps well and making a couple of tackles for loss. He still needs time to develop in coverage, but with Williams and George Iloka set as the starters, Fejedelem should have plenty of time to perfect his craft.

                  

    Team Need: 1/10

    Potential Draft Fits: None. The team could consider bringing in camp competition via undrafted free agents.

Kicker

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    Frank Victores/Associated Press

    Starter: Randy Bullock

    NFL1000 Scores: Did not have enough snaps to qualify

    While the Bengals re-signed Randy Bullock following his late-season replacement of Mike Nugent (who ranked 34th out of 34 qualifying kickers in 2016), Bullock is likely a stopgap measure. He has been a slightly below-average kicker throughout his NFL career, with real struggles from long distance, as he is just 29-of-39 from 40 to 49 yards and 5-of-11 from 50-plus yards.

    The Bengals have historically tried to keep costs low when it comes to specialists, and bringing in a rookie on a late-round deal or through the undrafted free-agent ranks is a likely course this offseason. With Cincinnati losing five games by four points or fewer in 2016, beefing up its specialists is an easy way to see improvement and potentially compete in the AFC North

             

    Team Need: 10/10

    Potential Draft Fits: Zane Gonzalez (Arizona State)

Punter

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    Punter: Kevin Huber

    NFL1000 Scores: 63.1/100

    NFL1000 Position Rank: 27/34

    Kevin Huber's 2016 was largely forgettable, with the veteran displaying strong distance but below-average hang time and ball control. Huber was a Pro-Bowler in 2014, so he has the talent to be among the top 10 punters in the league, but he simply did not play up to that level last year.

    With Huber in the last year of his deal and slated to earn $2.8 million with a cap number north of $3.1 million, he may end up being cut during training camp if the Bengals bring in a youngster either through the draft or in the post-draft free-agency period.

    That could leave the Bengals with two rookie specialists if Randy Bullock is beaten out as well, which might be too young of a group for management. However, there are some real questions as to whether Huber is the man for the job, especially considering what the Bengals have been paying him.

            

    Team Need: 5/10

    Potential Draft Fits: Austin Rehkow (Idaho)

              

    Advanced statistics provided by Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted. Contract numbers provided by Spotrac unless otherwise noted.