CINCINNATI -- The Bengals avoided making too many splash picks in this year's NFL draft, but the selections they did make still earned high marks from ESPN draft insider Mel Kiper Jr.
In Kiper's post-draft grades published Sunday, the Bengals trended on the positive side of the curve. He gave them a "B."
I'd have to agree, and depending upon how you view draft hauls, I'd argue that maybe they deserve an even higher grade than that.
From the traditional "best player available" draft model, a solid "B" probably is about the cap on what grade one could give them. After all, one could easily consider Carlos Hyde a better-rated running back than Jeremy Hill, the second-round pick the Bengals ultimately made. Hyde certainly had his off-field red flags, but they seemed tame compared to Hill's conviction for sexual assault in high school and college arrest that stemmed from a bar fight that was caught on camera. In the third round, there also seemed to be better rated players on the board at other positions instead of defensive end William Clarke.
If you instead choose to view the Bengals' draft through the lens of addressing team needs, they probably deserve a "B-plus" and could even make their own case for a fringe "A-minus." They did end up selecting players -- and good ones -- at the spots they needed the most. Their first-round pick, Darqueze Dennard, fit a need for cornerback and he certainly was the best player available at the time of his selection. The fourth-round trade up for center Russell Bodine was brilliant and arguably one of the more underrated moves of the entire draft. That pick, along with Hill's, showed how serious the Bengals are about turning their offense into a more physical and run-focused machine.
Along with the key offensive additions, the Bengals also had defensive picks that reflect their belief of where the league is headed from a schematic standpoint. With so many offensive players coming out of spread systems in college, you're beginning to see NFL teams spread out the field with multiple receivers and tight ends and backs who can catch passes out of the backfield. As a result, defenses are in nickel packages more often than they might have been in the past, meaning they need players on the field who can cover the taller receivers, the bigger tight ends who are playing slot receiver-types of roles, and the athletic backs who sometimes get flanked out, too.
The Bengals' pick of Dennard reflects how seriously they take their man-press coverage. Acoording to some draft pundits, Dennard may have been the best cover corner in the draft. Along with him, the Bengals added a tall defensive end in Clarke whose long arms and height can help disrupt short-to-intermediate passing windows on the edges. Sixth-round pick Marquis Flowers could eventually be the ideal nickel backer after playing everywhere in the secondary in college. He's been a safety before and was both a Sam and Will linebacker at Arizona. The Bengals believe his athleticism will be perfect against some of the offenses they'll have to see.
Cornerback Lavelle Westbrooks' selection in the seventh round also shows of the serious emphasis the Bengals are hoping to put on defensive coverage. Like Flowers, the Bengals hope to use him on specials teams.
Then there's the fifth-round pick, quarterback AJ McCarron. His selection might have been in response to Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray being taken one spot before at No. 163 to the Chiefs, but the Bengals' brass contends they liked McCarron anyway, even despite the Day 3 reports that said he rubbed some team executives the wrong way during the pre-draft process.
McCarron's persona is different than starting quarterback Andy Dalton's. And while Dalton still should be convinced that he is not entering a quarterback controversy, he still has to wonder if McCarron's addition was to help step up the competition at the position. The move certainly seems to suggest that.