For the first time in three seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals’ first round selection is not set in stone as the NFL Draft approaches. In 2020, Joe Burrow was the sure-fire number one pick, and while there was some lively debate around the fifth overall selection last season, Ja’Marr Chase became the betting favorite as draft day grew closer. Thanks to a Super Bowl run in 2021 followed by a busy offseason of key free agent signings, there are a few different directions the team could go at pick 31. In this series, we will make a case for the Bengals attacking specific position groups with their first round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
The Case for Drafting a Cornerback
The Bengals defense was a strength overall last season, even if they finished middle of the pack in points allowed per game, and allowed the 7th most passing yards in the league. Chidobe Awuzie was exceptional replacing William Jackson, scoring the third-highest coverage grade according to PFF (among cornerbacks that played at least 300 snaps). Eli Apple was a lightning rod for criticism throughout the season, but was solid starting opposite Awuzie. Mike Hilton was steady in the slot, per usual, and contributed some exciting moments throughout the season.
MIKE HILTON OMG ‼️— PFF (@PFF) January 22, 2022
With all three starting corners returning in 2022, why is cornerback a potential option at pick 31? For one, Eli Apple signed just a one-year deal this offseason at replacement-level salary. If he plays as well as he did last season, that’s great, but it’s unlikely that the 7th year pro is a key part of the defense for years to come. Secondly, while Awuzie was excellent last year, it did represent a career-year for him from a coverage grade perspective. Chido is unlikely to further progress into a lock-down corner in his sixth season, but more likely remains a good to sometimes great defender for the remainder of his contract. Mike Hilton has never played more than 28 snaps at outside corner in his career. A need exists for another reliable outside corner to at worst challenge Apple this season, and hopefully claim the starting role sooner rather than later.
The Possible Options
With top cornerbacks Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner and Derek Stingley certain to be off the board long before 31, the most likely considerations at that position are Andrew Booth Jr. (Clemson), Kaiir Elam (Florida), Roger McCreary (Auburn), and Kyler Gordon (Washington) among others. Snagging one of those players would set up the defense nicely for a CB2 camp battle with the hopes of a long-term solution emerging.