Dehner Jr.: Post-combine Bengals thoughts include draft options, Joe Mixon’s future


INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL Scouting Combine came to a close with the latest crop of physical freakishness on full display. Meanwhile, in the bars and restaurants, similar amazing feats were happening. On top of that, a slew of Cincinnati Bengals coaches spent time with reporters, agents lingered in the hallways and even former players like Domata Peko (now coaching defensive linemen) popped up around corners of the Marriott. So it goes at the NFL convention.

Here is a collection of thoughts following the week that was about the critical two months in front of the Bengals.

Pick 18 feels like an uneasy spot

Judge a combine riser by the number of eyeball emoji tweets posted. It gives a feel of a handful of players advancing from good to great. That can and did happen with some. Yet, for the most part, these numbers are verifiers and not amplifiers. The thought around Indianapolis was that there aren’t 18 true first-round-graded players in this draft. As one league source put it, you’d probably rather be at 28 than 18, suggesting the value for Cincinnati could exist in a trade back this year.

Or, offensive line coach Frank Pollack offered a more specific view.

“I’ve heard debates say after the 12th pick in the draft, what’s the difference between 13 and 32?” he said. “It’s kind of that demarcation line of guys who have a smoother transition.”

That’s an interesting thought for a team 10 times more likely to trade back than up. Although it’s fun to think about the idea of going up for one of the premier tackles or top three receivers, sliding back and adding a Day 2 pick could be just what the roster needs.

Free agency will go a long way to that determination, but adding picks will always make player personnel director Duke Tobin’s heart flutter. There might be a strategic advantage to doing so again this year.

Tone around Mixon was past tense

If looking for answers about Joe Mixon’s future with the $3 million roster bonus approaching on March 17, they weren’t always easy to find. There certainly weren’t declarative sentences. As you would expect, Tobin and Zac Taylor weren’t interested in commenting on future roster decisions.

“I can tell you his role this past year was good,” Tobin said. “He had a really good season for us. I was proud of him over a thousand yards and double-digit touchdowns and it was a big factor for us. In terms of predicting anybody’s role going forward, I’m not going to do that up here on the podium. Those are roster-building strategies and those are things that we’re talking through as this whole thing unfolds with every player on our roster.”

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Dehner Jr.: It’s hard to find reasons for Bengals to keep Joe Mixon

For that reason, most of the talk about Mixon came in the past tense. That’s not to say his time in Cincinnati has officially ended. But there was no discussion of what his role could be, talk of how they think he has gas left in the tank, or any mention of his 2024 season.

“I always look at Joe Mixon very fondly and appreciate everything that he does for us,” Taylor said.

In more private conversations, the takeaway was I truly don’t believe this decision has been made yet. The roster bonus timing was put in because it was in the best interest of Mixon’s camp and the Bengals so it doesn’t drag out as it did last year. Strong opinions have been voiced, of course, but the final verdict from the top still hangs in the balance.

Explosive plays, explosive plays, explosive plays

New Bengals offensive coordinator Dan Pitcher spent the first few weeks of his new job the way he’s approached nearly every one of the four jobs he’s done inside the Bengals organization.

Step back and conduct an in-depth analysis.

That means studies, situations, self-scout and shortcomings. He was doing it for himself, building the path forward for an offense under his direction for the first time and one with the potential to leave a lasting impression on the entire league.

He had each of his position coaches dig into those trends themselves to see what they found. It’s a way he always liked to do the job and was doing on his own, but the more minds tracking down more trend opportunities the better.

The results of those internal studies are proprietary, but they often led back to solving one simple problem: The Bengals have to be more explosive.

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New Bengals offensive coordinator Dan Pitcher wants to make increasing explosive plays a priority for his unit in 2024. (Gary McCullough / Associated Press)

The Bengals ranked 26th last season in explosive-play percentage (runs of 12-plus yards and receptions of 16-plus yards). Talk Joe Burrow injuries and all that, as well as defenses protecting against it, but these weapons living in the bottom quarter was unacceptable.

“We have been a very efficient rushing offense when you look at some of the context-dependent metrics — the EPA efficiency, chunk percentage, things like that, there’s good stuff there,” Pitcher said. “You break it down by specifically one scheme, some things we were good and others we weren’t. Those are the kind of findings that allow you to forge the path forward.”

Pitcher pointed out that every position group belongs in that conversation — from more dynamic catch-and-run, scheme, running back making defenders miss, finishing blocks and the QB making the right checks.

That’s a nice hint for a theme to expect during the next two months of player acquisition.

Everyone jumped to Hubbard’s defense

There were multiple conversations about the value of Sam Hubbard, who is coming off a less productive second half of the season, about to turn 29, and with his contract easier to let go for cap savings.

The Bengals are having none of that. They doubled down on the respect for Hubbard and his game actually growing when he needed surgery for the ultra-painful ankle injury after the season.

Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo called Hubbard “a true warrior … who basically played on one leg last season.” Everyone expects Hubbard to revert to his previous self without the injury dragging him down.

There appear to be ideas about using Hubbard in different ways and more willingness to kick inside for specific sub-packages, but there was a resounding belief in Hubbard’s specific impact on this team and scheme.

“He brings other people along, and really what he did at the end of the year, playing through a traumatic injury that he ended up after the season having to have surgery on was just a testament to his toughness and grit and the fact that he could be out there helping us try to get to the playoffs,” Tobin said. “That’s what Sam Hubbard is all about. He’s still got a lot of life in his career, in my opinion, when he doesn’t have that injury. I think he’s better. I think he’ll tell you that. But he was pretty good with the injury. He’s one of the best run-stopping defensive ends in the NFL.”

Don’t rule out cornerback in first round, free agency

Cam Taylor-Britt will be the sure CB1 next year, no secret there. Don’t go ruling out another top corner entering the mix, though. The club loved what rookie DJ Turner showed last season, but everyone saw the confidence and production plummet during the final stage of his first season.

Anarumo stole a line from Mike Hilton to describe it.

“He didn’t hit the rookie wall, the rookie wall hit him,” Anarumo said.

Turner slots as the starter opposite Taylor-Britt, but the message was clear that what went on in the secondary wasn’t good enough. Everything is on the table, and if a quality corner becomes available in free agency or the draft falls with the top player on their board at that position, then they didn’t express hesitation in making that move.

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Robbins will have company

The hope was Brad Robbins would arrive last year and become the next punter to spend a decade with the team, as was the case with Kevin Huber. That didn’t happen and Robbins endured a rough rookie campaign. That will earn him competition.

It could be a veteran, something special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons wasn’t ruling out. It could mean another rookie pick. Simmons saw signs that suggest Robbins could enjoy a bump in Year 2, but if there is money to fix the problem in free agency, that’s not out of the question.

Ossai climbing out of the doghouse?

Maybe the most surprising comment to come out of Indianapolis last week was when Anarumo dropped praise for the perceived mayor of his doghouse, Joseph Ossai. He’s been unable to get on the field and never saw a real opportunity last year despite staying healthy all season.

Anarumo likes what he’s seen so far and noted it without prompting.

“Joseph is not rehabbing anything this year,” he said. “He’s in there every day. Every day. Just working on different things. I’m anxious to see a healthy Joseph Ossai as well.”

Well, I’ll be.

Positivity everywhere regarding Burrow’s wrist

Everyone wants to know the deal with Burrow’s wrist injury. He’s still wearing the wrap and mostly greeting with his left hand. All appears well and on pace.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Can the Bengals finally solidify Joe Burrow’s protection this offseason?

There haven’t been any setbacks, and the offseason program is likely to be where he returns. He still has to go through the rehab process without issue, but there aren’t concerns about what’s unfolded thus far.

(Top photo of Zac Taylor: Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today)





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