The Bengals Draft With an Eye on Their Rival

Cincinnati takes players who can help them beat the Chiefs, just as Kansas City did the year before by drafting defensive backs to counter the Bengals.

The difference between the Bengals and the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs is vanishingly small, with each of the four games they’ve played in the previous two seasons settled by a field goal (three in the last seconds of the game). The larger narrative about both teams could easily have been swung by just a play or two in any of those contests.

Despite that tightness in quality (or perhaps because of it), the last two drafts saw each team make picks that seemed designed to counter the other. In 2022 Kansas City, clearly spooked by their inability to stop Joe Burrow throwing to Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, spent four picks in the top 103—including two in the first round—on defenders who could run with the wideouts and get after Joey B. In all, seven of K.C.’s 10 choices went to the defensive side. The Chiefs got a noticeable increase in speed and talent on that side of the ball, and it helped them edge Cincinnati in last year’s AFC title game.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say, so the Bengals complimented K.C. by imitating that strategy and using their 2023 draft picks to counter the Chiefs. More pass rush and speedy defensive backs are needed to check Pat Mahomes, Travis Kelce, et al, and that’s just what the Bengals went after in the first three rounds. When Tyler Boyd got hurt in that AFC title game and Chase and Tee were double-covered, no one else could get open—hence, the Bengals took a pair of highly athletic and productive receivers last week to shore up the bottom part of their depth chart. The running game wasn’t explosive enough, so Cincinnati grabbed a workhorse back with breakaway speed. Oh, and a crappy punt cost them a possible trip back to the Super Bowl, so they went and got a new (hopefully improved) punter as well.

There are 30 other teams in the NFL, of course, and the players Cincinnati selected will impact the rest of the schedule. But there’s no doubt the specter of Kansas City and that crushing loss in the AFC title game was in the back of the Bengals’ minds on draft day. This is what First World problems look like in the NFL, so we should be happy the team is thinking this way.

As I wrote last week, this draft also had to thread the needle between helping the 2023 Bengals win and building for 2024 and beyond. In this aspect, the team did a good job, and the methodology for doing so was counterintuitive. They used their premium picks in rounds 1, 2 and 3 on the future, while going for immediate assistance on the third day. That’s not to say Myles Murphy, D.J. Turner, and Jordan Battle won’t aid in this year’s struggle—they surely will—but they’re mostly being counted on as key pieces down the line. Meanwhile, wideout Charlie Jones, running back Chase Brown, and punter Brad Robbins will be asked to contribute immediately, far more than your standard late-round picks. Cincinnati’s two other two picks, project wideout/heptathlete Andrei Iosivas and seventh-round corner D.J. Ivey, are essentially lottery tickets.

Murphy was a high school mega-star at defensive end in the Atlanta area (Marietta), which is where I live. To stand out among the awesome rafts of talent down here is saying something, and Murph endeared himself by spurning the local football factory in Athens to play at Clemson. So I’ve seen a lot of him, and it can fairly be said that choosing the Tigers over the Bulldogs was probably a mistake, at least as far as developing his pro potential. Clemson was a mess the last couple of years for a variety of reasons, and they squandered the immense talent they’d stockpiled. That’s one of the reasons why Murphy—despite possessing incredible power, quickness, speed and desire—didn’t put up the kind of numbers everyone expected from him. He was ticketed to be a top 10 pick in this draft since, hell, probably since he was a sophomore in high school. But he slid to Cincinnati at No. 28 because the production didn’t match the skill set.

That said, grabbing a player with Murphy’s textbook traits at a premium position that late in the first round is definitely worth the pick and could wind up a coup. Many were upset that Cincinnati didn’t go for clear need there and take local product Michael Mayer, the Notre Dame tight end from CovCath. But Mayer doesn’t have the same ceiling as his fellow MM, and he plays a less vital position, especially in the Bengals offense. In that sense, Murphy was a no-brainer. It doesn’t mean Mayer won’t be a better pro than him, but you have to make that pick—especially with beating the Chiefs in mind.

Grabbing Turner in Round 2 was a case of elite talent matching need. Turner, another Georgian, fell to No. 60 overall due to his size, but anyone who watched him play at Michigan knows that was hardly a detriment—he was one of the few defenders who stood up to Ohio State’s squadron of insane wide receivers over the last two seasons. And he had the fastest 40-yard time at the NFL combine, a blazing 4.26. Unlike a lot of burners, however, Turner is also very oozy in the hips, critical to cornerback effectiveness. He’s more natural in that respect than last year’s second-rounder, Cam Taylor-Britt, who uses his tremendous speed to recover and hit like a missile. Turner isn’t that physical but is more sticky in coverage due to his fluidity.

Ideally, Chido Awuzie is fully recovered from his knee injury and Turner can ease into the league, but don’t be surprised if, like CTB, he’s forced into an early role. Plus Turner’s given name is JuanDrago, so you gotta like that.

Battle was surely a surprise, given safety was less a need than tight end or running back at that point. But a) if you can get a guy on your team named “Battle” you have to do so, and b) the team clearly loved him, from his Vonn Bell-like leadership qualities (a captain at Alabama) to his production (two-time All-American with the Tide) to his special teams excellence (ST coach Darrin Simmons clearly had a part in his selection). Cincinnati has won with talent over the last two seasons, but don’t dismiss character as a factor, and Battle fits both departments. Plus we haven’t seen much of either new starting safety, Dax Hill and Nick Scott, in stripes. Another reinforcement will help just in case.

As a Syracuse alum, I got an eyeful of Jones as he tore apart the Orange secondary in a game against Purdue this past season. I also watched the Illinois-Michigan game closely, and the Illini’s Brown was the best player on the field that day. Both fell in the draft in part due to age. The havoc COVID played on college football was deeply felt in this draft as so many players used extra-eligibility waivers to stay on campus in 2022.

Jones turns 25 in October but made the most of it, escaping the Paleolithic offense used in Iowa to transfer to Purdue and thrive in a passing attack. He and Brown can both fly, and they’ll play immediate roles on the team. Jones will be the favorite to take over as returner and is an upgrade on our beloved Crocodile Hunter, Trenton Irwin, as the fourth wideout.

Brown may well take over as the starting running back at some point, with the position in flux before camp begins. His worry isn’t the years, it’s the mileage: 676 collegiate carries is a ton. But in Round 5, that’s less of a thing. Cincinnati will happily ride him as much as Brown can handle, and when he breaks down they can easily move on. A cynical approach, but that’s the nature of the position.

As for Robbins, he played at Michigan with a hell of a mustache. With apologies to you Ohio State fans out there, former Buckeye Drue Chrisman is about to be replaced by a punter from that school up north. Robbins led the NCAA in hang time in 2022, and he’ll be counted on not to send a returnable line drive down the middle of the field with seconds to go in a tied game.

Iosivas (yo-SEE-vosh) stands apart from the other selections, and not just because his name is tricky to pronounce. (C’mon: Jones, Brown, Murphy, Battle, Turner? Suddenly the Bengals are allergic to trisyllabic, unusual names. The team was clearly not taking Adetomiwa Adebawore or Olusegun Oluwatimi.) The Princeton man has been a track and field star first and foremost, though he put up numbers in the Ivy League as a wideout. His athleticism is off the charts, a 9.92 on the Relative Athletic Score chart. If he can be molded into a refined pro receiver, the Bengals could have a steal. His selection is reminiscent of when Cincinnati took Margus Hunt, another track and field star turned footballer. Hunt didn’t work out, but then again he was a second-round pick, not a sixth.

Iosivas has zero expectations, isn’t required for immediate success, and if he never translates the asset cost was low. A worthy dice roll. As for Ivey, if he sticks as a special teamer, d’iyanu.

This draft wasn’t as franchise-changing as the 2020 Burrow Edition or as interesting as the 2021 Chase vs. Sewell Great Debate. But it provided for both the present and the future, at least on paper, and that’s all you can ask—especially when you start picking at No. 28.

Let’s meet back here on the digital sports pages of Cincinnati Magazine this summer when we preview the 2023 season!

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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