My, how things have changed. From virtually the moment we all gagged at the sight of Joe Burrow writhing on the field in agony in November, his left knee imploded, one certainty for the upcoming 2021 NFL draft was that the Bengals would take the best offensive lineman available. It was generally thought that meant Oregon tackle Penei Sewell, an enormous freak of nature who won the 2019 Outland Trophy as the nation’s best collegiate lineman as a sophomore.
“Suck For Sewell” was the order of the day. Banners demanding the Bengals add Sewell to the roster were regularly spotted at Paul Brown Stadium as fall turned to winter and Burrow began his arduous post-surgery rehab. When Cincinnati beat Houston late in the year, causing them to slip to No. 5 in the draft order, there was much gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts on the assumption this “Second Muñoz” was now out of reach.
Then draft season began in earnest, and week by week, day by day, and hour by hour the consensus began to change. First it was that Sewell would indeed be available to draft when Cincinnati was up. That morphed into the amazing idea that perhaps Sewell wouldn’t be the lineman of choice and that there were others as good, maybe even better. Then, in a concept that would be shocking to any Bengals fan circa December 2020, the earth moved again. Not only were the Bengals unlikely to select Sewell or any lineman; the choice looked more and more certain to be a wide receiver! Namely Ja’Marr Chase, last seen catching 20 touchdowns from Burrow as a 19-year-old at LSU.
And thus begat the Great Bengals Fanbase Civil War, with the house divided against itself into Team Sewell and Team Chase.
By now, any fan who even casually follows the Bengals—a group that doesn’t appear to include many national pigskin analysts—is aware of the choice Cincinnati faces tonight when the draft arrives at long last. Do they “Protect Burrow” by taking the lineman or “Cater to Burrow” by selecting his favorite wideout (and close friend) from LSU’s epic 2019 offense? Prioritize the trenches or the perimeter? Do the obvious thing to placate the noisy commentators or march to the beat of their own drummer?
The reason the debate has lasted so long is because the nuances are so interesting and so numerous. They strike right to the heart of team building and how it’s changing as the sport evolves.
Begin with the make up of this particular class of draftees. It’s considered an exceptionally deep pool of both offensive linemen and receivers, meaning whichever position the Bengals skip at No. 5 can almost certainly be addressed in the second and/or third rounds.
But not all linemen and receivers fit the team’s precise needs. The signing of Riley (“Great Barrier”) Reiff in free agency meant Cincinnati doesn’t absolutely have to select an immediate starter at tackle; they still need one at guard and perhaps another close-to-ready starter if center Trey Hopkins isn’t good to go after his knee surgery, which seems likely. While Sewell could theoretically kick inside for a season, drafting a guard at No. 5 is not a good use of that high a draft position, even if he resumes playing tackle in 2022. And interior linemen—good ones—should be plentiful on Day Two of the draft.
Likewise, for what the Bengals need at wide receiver, Chase is somewhat Sui generis. A pure “X” receiver who possesses breakaway speed, extreme power, and a bulldog mentality many liken to former great Steve Smith (ideally minus the teammate punchouts), Chase stands well above the other wideouts of that type available for picking now. Most top receivers, like the Alabama duo Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, are smaller, older, less physical players who are somewhat redundant to Cincinnati’s “T-2” set of Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins. There could be a similar style player to Chase available in round two, but he would be a ways off as a prospect.
What the Bengals require most is the flanker speed and deep ball efficiency Chase would provide. The receiving corps has lost over 100 targets in balls thrown to A.J. Green and John Ross, the two receivers who were supposed to elongate defenses with their speed in 2020. That didn’t happen, as we know, and Cincinnati struggled mightily to throw it deep; and now we don’t even have Green or Ross to kick around anymore. Indeed, a deep dive into the offensive struggles reveal as much blame should go to the receivers for lack of quick separation and downfield speed as to the O-line for its supposed inability to keep rushers from smashing Burrow.
Another factor is the overdue replacement of offensive line “coach” Jim Turner, whose name has been mud around these parts ever since his disastrous hire. The new guy is old friend Frank Pollack, whose presence should help revive players like Billy Price and allow others like Xavier Sua-Filo to become quality starters. Pollack can’t be expected to turn water into wine necessarily, but he turned what was supposed to be a similarly poor unit in 2018 into one that plowed a path for the AFC’s leading rusher.
To this point in football history, the best path toward building a good offense—and thus a regularly competitive team, as offense is more year-to-year reliable than defense—is to work from the inside out. Take care of the O-line, and the skill positions will look good as a result. This line of thinking doesn’t count the quarterback, of course; that position is the prime factor. Wonderful receivers and backs without good blocking may get you on the highlight reel, but it doesn’t win games—especially postseason games.
Yet that thinking has changed some with the advent of this high-octane, ultra-offensive friendly era. The pros follow the colleges, and for several years now the junior ranks have been pumping out elite passers and pass catchers, while truly polished linemen are rarer and rarer. Generally, collegiate offenses prize quickness and skill over power, and incoming youth players have followed the playing time and the money, eschewing other positions in order to chuck the rock and haul it in.
In that sense, having three dynamite receivers might be worth more in today’s NFL than five dominant linemen. It’s certainly easier to come by. Cincinnati has been plagued by trotting out below-average players, whether due to injury, coaching, or poor drafting. Forget awesome. If the team can just get the line up to decent, it might resemble the 2005 or 2015 versions, which had one great player (Andrew Whitworth) and other solid pieces who played well together but were hardly candidates for the team’s newly announced Ring of Honor.
Neither Sewell nor Chase has played an actual game since January 2019 (both opted out due to COVID concerns), and ultra-talented tight end Kyle Pitts could also be available at 5. Throw in the fact that Cincinnati might be best served by trading down, and it all adds up to a draft as long on suspense and strategy and game theory as last year’s was a boring fait accompli, with Burrow’s selection all but assured.
So what will the Bengals do? The smart money has been on Chase for a while now, and not because the team is somehow caving to Burrow’s whims—or, as some halfwit suggested, trying to stick it to the departed Green by picking his replacement. The feeling inside the front office appears to be that Chase is simply the better prospect than Sewell, or any particular lineman, and that big uglies with first round grades can be had in Round Two—a notion de facto General Manager Duke Tobin explicitly said in a podcast with radio man Dan Hoard a couple of weeks ago.
The draft needs to be looked at not simply as Chase vs. Sewell, but either plus the team’s next couple of picks. The thinking is Chase combined with a lineman (or linemen) in the next few rounds tops Sewell combined with whatever receiver might be had on Day Two. Indeed, if Sewell is the pick, there is a strong likelihood the team would next address its thin defensive line before trying to jam in a far lesser version of Chase.
All of this is reasonable and may just be brilliant. On the other hand, despite everything laid out above, I still fly the colors of Team Sewell. I want the Bengals to transform from their current puny, finesse-based stature to become the bullying squad it was in various heydays, most recently the early 2010s. There is no reason a second round lineman wouldn’t help achieve that end, and Chase is the rare wideout who sets a team’s tone to “Ultraphysical.” But the surest path to becoming a squad that can push around the big boys in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and (yikes) even Cleveland is to get the 330-pound specimen who may well still be growing, unleash him on unsuspecting defenders, and figure the rest out later.
Whatever way it all shakes out over the next few days, I’ll be back with a recap next week. That’s when the Bengals Civil War will be over at last and the Reconstruction Era begins.
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.