By Garth Shanklin – News Democrat
For the first time in a while, it may be a great week to be a Cincinnati sports fan.
First, the Cubs have finally left town. The Reds don’t face them for two more months, and given how the first two series went, that’s a very good thing.
Also, and perhaps even more importantly, there’s a little event this weekend called the NFL Draft.
I’m not sure how many people watch the draft as closely as I do. There was a five-year stretch where I didn’t miss a single pick, from #1 all the way to Mr. Irrelevant. That streak was broken last year, since I had to work that Saturday morning, but if all goes well I hope to restart it this year.
There are probably a rather large number of you out there wondering why I torment myself with hours of Chris Berman talking nonsense about things: I don’t. I usually mute the television or watch the broadcast on NFL Network. I’m pretty sure that decision has added years onto my life.
As for the more general question of why I, or anyone else for that matter, would watch the entire draft to begin with, I don’t have an answer for that. Seven million people watched the first day of the NFL draft last year on ESPN. The prior year saw a total of 45.7 million people tune in for the event.
Why do people tune in? Some likely watch just because of the NFL’s dominance in the television landscape. If the shield is on television, they’re tuning in. Some watch because it’s a way to get a head start on the upcoming fantasy season. I don’t know why anyone chooses to watch it, especially when you can find out all of the picks on Twitter minutes before they’re announced on television.
Regardless of the rationale behind tuning in to the event, it’s a safe bet that numerous Bengals fans from across the nation will be watching, if not the entire draft then at the very least the first round. For the first time since the lockout in 2011, the Bengals have actual first-round needs.
Let’s look back at 2012. The Bengals had two picks in the first round that year, one of which came from Oakland in what is to date the only breaking sports news that has made me drop what I was holding when I first heard the report.
Of the main needs the Bengals had at the time, corner and guard were chiefly among them. The team took Dre Kirkpatrick with their first pick in the round, then traded down and selected Kevin Zeitler with their second. Zeitler started right away for the team, Kirkpatrick took time to develop and has only recently expanded his role.
2013 saw the team in need of defensive help, at least according to CincyJungle.com. The site listed the Bengals’ top three needs as linebacker, safety and running back. The team took tight end Tyler Eifert with their first pick that year.
In 2014, cornerback and the offensive line were again key points of contention for the squad entering the offseason. The Bengals chose Darqueze Dennard in the first round and took Jeremy Hill in the second.
The team’s list of needs in 2015 were my favorite. According to NFL.com, the squad needed secondary help at both corner and safety as well as a placekicker. If a kicker is one of your team’s top three needs, you’re either doing things extremely well or you forgot to sign a kicker before last season.
At any rate, most of the Bengals’ draft strategy of late has revolved around taking the best player available. Sure, they have needs, but none of the needs were so glaring they had to reach for an immediate starter. The players that currently start sat behind other players until they got their shot, meaning the team hasn’t had to find an immediate impact player since the drafting of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green in 2011.
That changes this year. Back in January, before the unrestricted free agency period began, the Bengals’ top need per NFL.com was a wide receiver. There were other needs, primarily at linebacker and center, but with four players on the cusp of free-agency it was clear pass-catchers were needed.
Then free agency actually came and two of the four receivers left. If the season were to begin right now, Green and Brandon LaFell would be the team’s top two receivers. Brandon Tate would be third. There are very few things in life that scare me more than the potential phrase “starting wide receiver Brandon Tate,” so wide receiver is suddenly a pressing need.
The position may lack an elite talent, according to some sites, but the depth should in theory be enough to give the Bengals some solid options when their pick comes on the board. It’ll be impossible to tell which wideout falls to Cincinnati, however. One of the better decisions the NFL made in recent years was the rookie wage slotting system for the draft, which both speeds up signing and allows draft picks to be traded easier.
The top two picks have already been dealt, and it’s impossible to tell what moves are next. That is why I watch the draft: you can make all the plans in the world, but you can’t account for Buffalo taking E.J. Manual in the middle of the first round or your rival trading up to snag the player you coveted the most. The first day of the draft is fun and exciting, and the fact that the Bengals have an actual need this time makes it all the more important.