In what was yet another depressingly disappointing year for the Cincinnati Bengals, the team did walk away from 2020 with some real hope for the future. Their offense has the potential to be something next season, helmed by their 2020 No.1 pick Joe Burrow who is flanked by legitimately good weapons in Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. With any luck, Joe Mixon will also be back for a redemption campaign after an injury-plagued season in 2020.
The problem is those injury bugs. Burrow, in particular, had a scary knee injury right in the middle of his scintillating rookie campaign, annihilating whatever playoff hopes the Bengals had with a talent like him under center, at least for 2020. He is still recovering, but we can expect his grit, toughness and talent to still be there when he returns to the field this fall.
What the Bengals need to do more than anything else is support their hometown hero. Whether that means protection, weapons or both is up to them, but the path for the team going into the 2021 NFL Draft is clear: build around Burrow. The team already addressed both their interior and perimeter defenses in free agency, meaning that they have the flexibility to support Burrow on the offensive end with the fifth pick.
Here’s how they do it. These are the three best options at pick No. 5 for the Bengals:
1. OL Penei Sewell, Oregon
Look, the Bengals did a good thing in free agency in spending big for Riley Reiff. Reiff and Jonah Williams make for a solid combo at both ends of the offensive line. Moreover, the signing does signify that Cincinnati could be looking to cash in on what could be the greatest wide receiver rookie class of all time in this year’s draft.
But if you are a Cincinnati fan, you should be scared to death of Burrow’s knee injury this past season. He’s mobile and very aggressive, but that means that he should be all the more protected as his career goes on. Franchise quarterbacks are rare, and what the Bengals found in Burrow is rarer than even that. Worse, who’s to say that Reiff (32) will be there for Joe in three years’ time?
No, the best thing that Cincinnati can do is invest in protecting who is arguably their best player going into this 2021 season. Penei Sewell is a physical freak. His technique might be slightly behind the rest of this year’s OL rookie class, but his athleticism and speed for his size are off the charts. Sewell is a rare lineman who could actually recover on a botched blocking assignment, which denotes almost generational talent at the position. He has the attitude, the skills and the pedigree to be Burrow’s blindside wall for a decade, and the Bengals would do no better than to invest in that for a player that is both talented and already injury-prone.
— NFL (@NFL) April 2, 2021
This is a list of the top three options for Cincinnati, but Sewell is the no-brainer, can’t-miss prospect of this class if he makes it to pick No. 5. Take him.
2. TE Kyle Pitts, Florida
If the Bengals want to go in on a weapon and Kyle Pitts is on the board, they can at least rationalize that he offers some protection as a TE. However, Pitts is built less like a blocking or combo TE than as a hulking wide receiver. Think DK Metcalf’s shirtless photo with cartoonish bubble muscles on the shoulders and arms. Kyle Pitts is big.
The fact that a tight end is actually being mocked up as going this high in the draft (or even higher if the Atlanta Falcons want him at pick number four) is a testament to how good of a player they are. Tight ends don’t usually go this early, and the position is notoriously hard to draft well for. But if there is one prospect that, barring injury, is a slam dunk at the position, it is Pitts. He’s a pass catcher and playmaker for sure, but his body would be a beast to get past for rushers as well.
If trained properly, he can be a generational talent at the position.
He just ran a 4.44u. ⏱🔥
— NFL (@NFL) March 31, 2021
If Sewell is unavailable, or if the Bengals sincerely think that Reiff and Williams are enough to guard the edges of their line (a dubious prospect), Pitts is the next best thing.
3. WR Ja’Marr Chase, LSU
This one needs a little explaining. Of the options available to teams at wide receiver, Chase is not only the consensus number one pick (which is saying a lot, given the depth of this class), but one that has built-in chemistry with Burrow. Notice Chase’s school? That’s the key: Burrow and him were as thick as thieves during LSU’s magical 2019 championship run, and Chase is one of the primary reasons behind Burrow’s deserved Heisman win in the bayou.
If given the chance to reunite, the two could very well reignite that spark once more. Moreover, adding Chase to the already-capable corps of Boyd and Higgins makes Cincinnati’s roster of weapons immediately more threatening.
Again, this pick is dependent on how much the Bengals’ front office trusts their offensive line as is. It should be said that the team has plenty of options at wide receiver even in the second round, and this could easily be seen as an unnecessary slight overdraft.
— Overtime (@overtime) March 31, 2021
But Burrow has already given his endorsement to his former partner in crime, and Cincinnati is most likely listening. If the team fancies its gambling chances with its offensive line, look for them to give serious consideration to the bayou’s finest.
OL Rashawn Slater, Northwestern: If the Bengals somehow don’t trust Penei Sewell’s lack of polish, Rashawn Slater makes up for that, in theory. If Sewell is available, pick him instead.
OL Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC: He is similar to Slater, but sub out polish for versatility at the position.
WR Jaylen Waddle, Alabama: He is regarded as the second-best wideout prospect in this class behind Ja’Marr Chase.