The Bengals Focus Their 2022 Draft on Defense

Coming off an amazing Super Bowl run and free agent signings along the offensive line, Cincinnati drafted some “high character” defensive stars.

As painful as Super Bowl LVI remains—and I still haven’t rewatched it—the NFL train never stops chugging. Only two teams in Super Bowl history have lost the big game and returned the following season to win it all (the 1970-71 Cowboys and the 2017-18 Patriots), so the idea the Bengals can repeat last winter’s magical run may be purely fanciful. But all things are possible when you have Joe Burrow, so the task for this offseason was to repair a few holes on the team that fell seconds short of the first championship in franchise history.

Holes numbers 1 through 101, of course, were up front, where said Super Bowl was lost. Protecting Burrow and improving the running attack were the main priorities this spring, and, as you probably know by now, the Bengals were quite successful in doing so (on paper, that is). The right side of the line, such a sieve during the postseason, has been entirely remade. Center Ted Karras and right guard Alex Cappa were snapped up in the opening salvos of free agency, from New England and Tampa Bay, respectively. Both are tough, heady, experienced linemen, guys who won’t be shoved into the backfield as easily as their predecessors. And, yes, both men played with Tom Brady.

The crowning signee came a few days later, when Dallas right tackle La’el Collins was let go in a salary cap move. He was an easy fit in Cincinnati, and his connection with line coach Frank Pollack from their days in Big D allowed the Bengals to beat a number of suitors for his services. Collins is younger and better than last season’s stopgap, Riley Reiff, and though he has had some injury and character concerns during his career, he instantly becomes the team’s best right tackle since the great Willie Anderson.

The signing of the trio of linemen not only made Burrow smile in anticipation of the increased time he’ll have to survey the field for the advanced weaponry at his disposal, it also allowed the Bengals not to have to pray certain linemen fell to them in the draft. Given they picked so low, No. 31 overall, the team would likely have had to move up to get the likes of Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum, whose T-Rex sized arms were a pre-draft obsession in the Queen City. Linderbaum and his shorties landed in Baltimore, so we’ll all see firsthand how they affect his play.

Instead, Cincinnati could focus on the defensive side of the ball, a unit that was largely ignored in free agency this year (other than re-upping tackle B.J. Hill) after spending sprees in 2020 and 2021. The run to the Super Bowl came not as a result of Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase but rather the defense, whose flexibility and inspired play were something of a shock after years of dreck. Not satisfied, the team doubled down on D in the draft, hunting (and even trading up!) for secondary prospects who can really run and have multi-positional potential.

The first rounder, Daxton Hill of Michigan, is an A-level example of this kind of player. Hill split his time between slot corner and both safety spots while in Ann Arbor and even has the traits to line up at boundary corner if necessary. Hill can fly, and he possesses tremendous instincts; he reminds me of Tyrann Mathieu without the SEC hype.

In the second round the Bengals went with a second Big Ten defensive back, Cameron Taylor-Britt, from Zac Taylor’s alma mater, Nebraska. CTB is more of a classic corner, though he possesses the traits to also play slot or even safety if needed. He’s also an example of the high character type the Bengals have prized as a “cultural leader.” Similarly, the fifth-round pick, Tycen Anderson out of Toledo, is a team captain and special teams maven and comes with the reputation of being willing to do anything to help the team; he’d probably help with construction of the announced new indoor practice facility the Bengals are building at long last.

Last April, the Bengals were crystalline in their belief that an elite wideout helps the offense more than a tackle, no matter how good. They obviously were proven correct, and the proof is in the league’s sudden lust for wideout talent this offseason.

Cincinnati is also at the forefront of what they clearly think is the cutting-edge of defensive play. With passing offenses more unstoppable than ever and with the AFC in particular loaded at quarterback, the need for advanced secondary play is more critical than ever. In this 7-on-7 style game, you can never have enough speedy, brainy dudes in the defensive backfield. The secondary was largely healthy for once in 2021, a large key to the team’s success, but that is unlikely to happen again. Meanwhile, starting safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell are free agents come next spring. So the Bengals attacked DBs in the draft, and even if some frontline guys go down or depart after ’22, they have strength in reserves.

Your mileage may vary in terms of the prospects selected, their positions, whatever. What can’t be denied is that the Bengals have a clear plan for what they want to do on the field and have drafted and signed free agents to adhere to that plan. For a franchise often distracted by shiny objects or determined to bargain hunt its way to mediocrity, and for a team suddenly thrust into regular championship contention thanks to Burrow’s emergence, that kind of gimlet-eyed thinking is a welcome change.

There are still some weaknesses. Cincinnati replaced tight end C.J. Uzomah, who left for New York to be a television talking head—uh, wait, this year he will play for the Jets (probably)—with Hayden Hurst, a former first round pick who has traits but not the matching production. Hurst should be able to pick up the slack, but behind him is just blocker Drew Sample and special-teamer Mitchell Wilcox.

Similarly, the team drafted an interior pass rusher in the third round, Zachary Carter out of Florida, but with Larry Ogunjobi’s departure they are thin behind Hill, the starting three-technique tackle. It’s conceivable but unlikely that Big O returns to Cincinnati after he failed his physical in Chicago. And they still need pass rush beyond Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. The hope is that Joseph Ossai, injured in the preseason a year ago, emerges to add to the QB chase, but he remains an unknown quantity.

Regardless, the Bengals are undoubtedly improved over the team that won the AFC a year ago. Getting back to the Super Bowl, and winning it this time, remains the goal. They’ll require a great deal of luck, of course, and perhaps they used up their quota in last year’s run. But no amount of luck would have helped if the team’s broken elements weren’t repaired during this off-season.

For the first time since the days of Sam Wyche, the Bengals not only are poised to become an annual contender but are on the forefront of NFL strategic thought. Nothing is won in the offseason, but Cincinnati sure didn’t lose the spring. On to training camp!

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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