Though the Cincinnati Bengals have yet to complete their free-agency plans, with offensive tackle Andre Smith and cornerback Adam Jones among their own players they hope to re-sign, it doesn't mean it's too early to take a look at what they may do in next month's NFL draft.
Some of the most noted experts around the league have been compiling their mock drafts for some time now. We're going to take a look at five of them—ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr. and Todd McShay, CBS Sports' Pat Kirwan, WalterFootball.com and Drafttek—to see what they think the Bengals will do with their 21st overall pick.
Mel Kiper, ESPN: LB Alec Ogletree, Georgia
Mel Kiper published his mock draft on March 11, one day before the start of free agency, and he rather concedes in his explanation of why the Bengals would choose Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree with this pick that he thinks Rey Maualuga won't be re-signed.
Indeed, Maualuga is back for 2013 and, according to head coach Marvin Lewis, will reprise his role as starting middle linebacker, which means Ogletree isn't likely the right pick for the Bengals in the first round. Kiper also notes that if the Bengals don't add a free-agent wide receiver or if they don't bring back offensive tackle Andre Smith, then those positions ultimately become bigger first-round priorities.
It should be noted that safety Kenny Vaccaro, considered one of the Bengals' biggest draft-day targets, goes to the St. Louis Rams with the 16th overall pick, according to Kiper's latest mock draft.
Todd McShay, ESPN: OT D.J. Fluker, Alabama
Todd McShay also takes a free-agency slant to his Bengals first-round pick, having them select offensive tackle D.J. Fluker of Alabama, ostensibly to replace Smith should he not be re-signed.
Truthfully, even if Smith gets a new deal in Cincinnati, they may still find themselves in the situation to take an offensive tackle in the first round, especially if he's overwhelmingly the best player available. Though they have other needs—safety, for example—McShay, too, has Vaccaro going too early for the Bengals to nab him (13th overall, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers).
Florida safety Matt Elam, however, isn't included in McShay's latest first-round mock draft. If the Bengals want to fill the position in the first round, Elam is certainly talented enough to warrant being selected 21st overall. That would be a better fit if the Bengals re-sign Smith; if not, however, then Fluker is a solid choice.
It must be noted, however, that Fluker is stronger at run protection than pass blocking, and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton certainly needs more time in the pocket if he's going to make a big leap this year.
Pat Kirwan, CBS Sports: OT D.J. Fluker, Alabama
Like McShay before him, CBS Sports' Pat Kirwan has the Bengals taking Alabama's D.J. Fluker in the first round this year, and just like McShay, he notes this is only the pick if Smith doesn't stay with the Bengals. He adds that the pick changes if he does but fails to add who that man might be.
He also has Vaccaro off the board by the Bengals' 21st overall pick (he goes to the Rams). It wouldn't be all that surprising, however, if that pick becomes Matt Elam with a new contract for Smith.
WalterFootball.com: OT Menelik Watson, Florida State
Clearly, the prospect of the Bengals losing Andre Smith has the mock draft universe shaking, because even WalterFootball.com has the team taking an offensive tackle in the first round, changing the pick from their original projection of safety Kenny Vaccaro.
The difference here, however, is that the pick isn't Fluker—it's Menelik Watson of Florida State. He's incredibly athletic and knowledgeable about the game, and he has the skills to eventually move to left tackle with a bit more development. Watson's stock is on the rise.
Of the five mock drafts examined here, Drafttek's selection of wide receiver Justin Hunter is certainly the most interesting and unorthodox we've seen. Though they acknowledge that the Bengals drafted two receivers last year—Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones—they describe the pair as "role players," while they believe that Tennessee's Hunter offers the most dynamism to take the heat off of star wideout A.J. Green.
Hunter caught 73 passes in 2012 for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns. He tore his ACL in 2011, which started his year off slowly, but he's still fast enough and tall enough to make an impact in the NFL. The question is whether he's truly a first-round worthy selection.
Clearly, free agency has affected how the experts have approached the Bengals' first-round draft pick for this year—perhaps, even a little too much. It seems that the main concern is what happens with Andre Smith, and that right tackle becomes a first-round priority if he doesn't re-sign.
While I am certainly in agreement that if the Bengals cannot retain Smith, right tackle becomes a major concern that they'll need to address in the draft and perhaps in the first round. But I am not of the mind that Smith won't get a new deal to remain in Cincinnati.
As such, safety continues to remain the Bengals' biggest first-round priority, with running back—i.e., if they fall in love with top prospect Eddie Lacy enough to take him so early on—being a secondary need. Kenny Vaccaro remains the biggest target for the Bengals at the safety position, but if they cannot get him, Matt Elam is most certainly in play.