Is it really over? I don’t know about you, but last week’s NFL draft—after 110,783 simulations, endless hours of debate and discussion, and a cleaving of the Bengals fanbase over what direction would best suit the team—still seems unreal to me. I mean, it happened, right? Ja’Marr Chase is officially a Bengal? Jackson Carman, too? Penei Sewell is not? Just making sure.
Team Chase, as predicted, won the war. Ja’Marr was the No. 1 choice of the Bengals front office and is now No. 1 in our hearts, not to mention #1 on the field. Cincinnati passed on the big brute (Sewell) in the first round in order to draft a different big brute (Carman) in the following round. They simultaneously managed to trade down and acquire a couple of extra mid-round swings, usually a sure path to overall draft success.
Sounds good, right? Chase is as sure a prospect as can be had at the wideout position, which makes Carman the critical piece. Cincinnati apparently had him circled for some time, preferring him to more discussed players like Tevin Jenkins and Liam Eichenberg. In that light, trading down and still getting him is a home run in the draft value game. Of course, the fact it was Mike Brown and former O-line coach Paul Alexander (the man who advocated for Cedric Ogbuehi, it should be noted) who were loudest in Carman’s favor gives plenty of pause.
He played left tackle at Clemson and was a former top recruit from this area (Fairfield High School), so hopefully some of that hometown goodwill can offset the enormous pressure he’s under. Carman will be asked to fill the gargantuan hole at right guard, and if he does so with aplomb he may never be asked to move out to tackle, a la Andrew Whitworth. And this draft will be considered a massive success. Certainly, his every move will be under scrutiny, especially by the folks who thought passing on Sewell was an error.
Elsewhere, Cincinnati did some interesting things. The third-round pick, edge rusher Joseph Ossai of Texas, could be a steal, a relentless and Uber-athletic specimen who just needs to acclimate to the NFL’s size and stamina requirements. How he slipped to the third round is a mystery, but then the Bengals have made plenty of hay taking defensive linemen in the middle rounds over the years.
Realizing that even apparent steals are crapshoots, the Bengals wisely grabbed a couple of other versatile, hustling D-linemen (Cam Sample of Tulane and Wyatt Hubert of Kansas State) along with a man-mountain of a run stuffer, Tyler Shelvin of LSU. Yes, another Bayou Bengal comes to Ohio! They did the same thing on the offensive line, snagging a fascinating prospect, D’Ante Smith of East Carolina, a long and athletic talent who needs weight and seasoning, and Trey Hill, a center/guard combo from Georgia with good size but bad knees.
And with the flexibility granted by the trade down, the team could also draft their favorite kicker talent, Evan McPherson of Florida (who is capable of things like this), and a potential sleeper running back, Chris Evans of Michigan, without failing to address their major needs.
Sounds good, huh? It’s easy to take an optimistic big picture approach. Cincinnati desperately needed an alpha wide receiver, an edge rusher, and a kicker and arguably got the best one available in the entire draft at each position. They also desperately needed bodies in the trenches and spent seven of their 10 picks on big dudes who either protect the quarterback or attack him. And they took some fascinating swings on developmental or underused players who, if any can be coached up, would make the draft a home run.
On the other hand, you can also look at the draft and say they went for sizzle over steak when it came to premium players, that they love a guy in Carman few others seem to, ignored opt-out and injury and suspension red flags with several picks, and drafted a kicker in the fifth dang round. Both takes are valid; alas, we won’t know for sure which (if either) is true for a few years.
You can do the same thing with the presumed opening day offensive line, the source of so much attention this offseason. One way to frame the 2021 Bengals O-line is to note they’ll start five guys picked in the first two rounds of the draft, counting Billy Price at center until the return of Trey Hopkins and Xavier Sua-Filo at guard. Both tackles, Jonah Williams and Riley Reiff, are first-rounders, and if they can play the entire schedule they’d provide the best set in town in years. Certainly overall they’re a more talented group than the unit trotted out in 2020.
Of course, there is a different possible framing. The tackles are a guy who has played 10 games in two seasons and a 32-year-old cut by the OL-challenged Vikings. The center is a first-round bust holding the spot for an average starter coming off serious knee surgery. And the guards include a rookie who’s never played the position (and had recent back surgery) and a competition between a couple of meh guys, Sua-Filo and Quinton Spain. Does that unit fill Burrow with confidence when his head hits his Star Wars-themed pillow at night?
The point here is that immediate post-draft speculation and feverish arguments over the prospective potential of this guy or that guy are foolish. Cincinnati’s 2021 fortunes will rise or fall on the strength of Burrow’s knee and how well he regains the athleticism and off-platform ability that makes him special. The Bengals’ draft additions hopefully will help him in that quest, but in the end it’s mostly on Joe. They can still be a good team even if the picks don’t pan out, so long as he is the superstar we need him to be. Conversely, Chase, Carman, et al can be fantastic but the team won’t be much if Burrow is a shadow of his former self.
It stinks to put that much on a young quarterback, but, hey, that’s why so many get picked at the top of the draft.
Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and authored four books, including his newest, “The Divine Miss Marble” from Penguin Random House. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.