This is the 12th in a 20-part series examining some possibilities for the Browns in the 2013 NFL Draft, including extensive looks at the most likely prospects for the No. 6 overall selection, potential targets later in the draft, trade-down scenarios, what the other teams in the AFC North might do and the top players coming out of Ohio State and the Mid-American Conference.
Each morning will bring a new, daily posting leading up the NFL Scouting Combine on Feb 20. And each Monday, we'll take a look at another team from the division.
Today it's the always entertaining (and now, playoff quality) Cincinnati Bengals.
Overview: For the first time in 45 years, the Bengals made back-to-back trips to the playoffs in 2011 and 2012. And they clinched their berth in Pittsburgh, off all places, to end the Steelers' hopes of a wild-card spot The Bengals finished at 10-6 and lost to the Houston Texans 19-13 in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
Building through the draft has proved wise for the Bengals. Their top two picks in 2011 -- wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton -- were massive hits. Green is already considered one of the premier wide receivers in the league. And Dalton has two 3,000-yard seasons under his belt, taking a slight step forward in his second year. Last year, they were considered to have one of the league's best drafts, taking cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (who then lost most of his rookie season with a bone spur in his knee) and nabbing guard Kevin Zeitler. Just after the draft, taking a chance on the freefalling stock of Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict rewarded the Bengals with a terrific return, as he stayed out of trouble and led the team with 127 tackles. Burfict was a first-round prospect for much of the 2011 season at ASU, before a string of personal fouls and off-the-field/mental concerns arose, and he fell right out of the draft altogether.
After getting a high price for disgruntled quarterback Carson Palmer from the Oakland Raiders -- Kirkpatrick is the first piece of that deal, and the Bengals have a second-round pick in this year's draft from the Raiders as well -- Cincinnati suddenly has a roster full of talent and a bright future.
The Bengals should also be active once free agency begins, as they're projected to have more salary-cap space than any other team, a whopping $55.1 million. This should make re-signing key free agents Andre Smith (offensive tackle) and Michael Johnson (defensive end) fairly easy.
The bottom line is the Bengals are a playoff team for the second year in a row, added two first-round talents in 2012, will have three picks in the first two rounds this year and have more cap room than any team in the NFL. The arrow is pointing up. How far can Dalton take them?
The Bengals signed running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis before last season but he wasn't able to provide an upgrade to the departed Cedric Benson, gaining over 1,000 yards but averaging just 3.9 yards per carry -- nearly exactly what Benson did his last year in Cincinnati.
On defense, Burfict and fellow linebacker Rey Maualuga accounted for a very high percentage of the team's tackles, and a need arose for another talented linebacker. Both racked up tackles but neither proved to be a real playmaker. The defensive line, with Johnson at end and Domata Peko and Geno Atkins on the inside, was a real strength and covered up many of the defense's shortcomings, though upgrading at the other end spot would help. There's age at the safety position (besides Taylor Mays, who was a combine stud a few years ago but hasn't panned out) and Kirkpatrick will essentially be a rookie again in 2013, providing a boost to the secondary.
The Bengals hold the No. 21 pick in the draft.
Biggest draft needs: S, OLB, RB, DE, C.
Targets to watch: Kenny Vaccaro, safety, Texas -- Vaccaro has shot up draft boards as of late, earning a ranking as high as the No. 7 overall player on the board of ESPN's Todd McShay. Vaccaro is tough against the run and yet still has the athleticism to function as a third cornerback in coverage. He's fluid in coverage with great instincts and is an aggressive tackler. Because of his skill-sets, Vaccaro could conceivably play either safety spot. He, along with the return of last year's No. 1 pick Kirkpatrick, would provide a very big boost to the defense. Vaccaro will be one of the players to watch during the entire draft process -- there's a chance he enters the top-10 and if he impresses, it's not impossible he's the No. 6 pick to Cleveland. Being a safety, that might hurt him, as it's not traditionally a position drafted that high. But in this passing-heavy NFL, coverage safeties hold value.
Datone Jones, defensive end, UCLA -- Jones finally lived up to his lofty expecations as a senior and is riding that momentum. Jones is a well-built athlete who uses his hands well and has an explosive first step off the line of scrimmage. He also has a full arsenal of pass-rush moves, which is fairly rare for a college defensive end, who often rely on one "ace" move. However, some say he doesn't have the speed or flexibility to turn the corner as a 4-3 defensive end, so where he ends up is in question. But his athleticism might carry him to the No. 21 selection.
Alec Ogletree, linebacker, Georgia -- Ogletree was at times the best player on the field, and that's saying something when playing alongside Jarvis Jones. He missed the first four games of the 2012 season due to a violation of team rules and still managed to rack up 99 tackles. A former safety, he has outstanding, sideline-to-sideline speed and is a real playmaker in space. He combines that speed with a great knack for violent hits, and never shies away from contact. He'll have to answer questions about his suspension, but Ogletree flies around the field (with pretty good size at 6-foot-3, 234 pounds) and with him, the Bengals would have great potential at the linebacker spots.
Eddie Lacy, running back, Alabama -- Coming off a monster game in the BCS National Championship game, Lacy jumped to the draft. Lacy is a big, powerful running back who keeps his legs churning in the pile. A 5-foot-10, 220 pounds, he's light on his feet but isn't a burner by any means. Folks will love to say he's an "AFC North" running back, an old-school power guy who doesn't go down without a fight. The Bengals did just spend money on Green-Ellis, but most teams are using a two-back system, and Lacy provides an upgrade at the position.
Manti Te'o, linebacker, Notre Dame -- Te'o isn't an option for the Bengals just because they have taken risks as of late, though that might not hurt. But the fact of the matter is that Te'o is a talented linebacker who has a pretty good chance to fall to No. 21. He was the do-it-all leader of Notre Dame's defense, a stout run defender with a knack to make the big play. His addition could lead to Maualuga moving to the outside. Of course, Te'o will have to answer questions about the nation's top story for a couple of weeks in the hoax of what he believed to be the death of his girlfriend. But he fits a need, is a talented player and taking risks has worked out well for the Bengals as of late.