As fans, we tend to talk about what we want for our favorite teams in the draft from the perspective of having watched the previous season, seeing what the deficiencies were, gauging the impact of free agency defection, and wanting to plug holes as early in the draft as possible.
That is a fair and reasonable approach, especially when it comes to the Bengals. When I think of all the things that happened last season, and their holes on the team that opened up, I think of the defense. One of the NFL's best in 2015, the defense suddenly looked old, slow, and un-athletic in 2016. If the team as a whole is going to come close to returning to its 2015 form in 2017, they've gotta get better on D.
Which means that the first place most of us have looked at when we assess their potential draft choice is the Bengals' front seven. They need a pass rusher, and if they were to use the ninth overall pick to get the best available one, I won't complain. They need help at linebacker, and before some injury concerns began to hover over Rueben Foster, I was all-in on putting him in the same group as Vontaze Burfict.
But there's another way to look at the draft, not in any way that's revolutionary, but in a way that a lot of us don't even consider when we talk draft possibilities.
Can one pick allow the Bengals to excel at something?
About a month ago, Arron Shatz of Football Outsiders - whose work is outstanding - published a piece for ESPN ranking the the NFL's best teams at every position post-free agency, where you won't find the Bengals listed at any position. When you think about where the Bengals were just 18 months ago, that's pretty staggering.
Now, I'd argue that with a competent starter and a reliable backup, the Bengals have a top-ten quarterback situation, and AJ's inclusion among their wide receivers alone could justify that group sneaking into the top-ten, but the overall takeaway - and I didn't need to read the lists to really know this - is that yeah, wow, the Bengals don't excel at anything.
There sure isn't much of an identity.
Can that change with what the Bengals do with the ninth pick?
I'm probably influenced by my colleague James Rapien, who daydreams of wide receivers the way I daydream of vacationing with Jennifer Aniston, but I think that when you start to look at the way that this draft class can help the Bengals be really, really good at at least one thing, there's a clear case to draft a wide receiver in the first round.
I'm going to spare you the kind of mindless and uninformed player evaluations you'll find in nearly every corner of the internet, and get the part out of the way where I admit that each of these players are different, and that the Bengals surely one value one more than the others, but if the Bengals added one of the top wideouts in this year's class to a group that includes AJ, young Tyler Boyd, Brandon LaFell, and I'll go ahead and throw in Tyler Eifert, would you say that the Bengals have a good chance at excelling at something?
If either Jonathan Ross, Mike Williams, or Corey Davis - again, three different type of players - were drafted by the Bengals, would their collection of wide receivers be among the five to ten best in the league?
Now, would taking a wide receiver with the ninth pick come at the expense of a position group that badly needs upgrades? Yes. And again, I'm very much okay with the Bengals improving their defense, and I badly wanted the Bengals to add a pass rusher in each of the past two drafts, so the obvious question at defensive end is - since they held steady at that position while the pass rush regressed - what changed?
But that's a good question at wide receiver as well. The aforementioned Mr. Rapien - who's probably going to try to molest me once he reads this - brought this up the other day: a year ago, most of us wanted the Bengals to add one of the top wideouts in the draft, which didn't happen. Yes, they landed a nice consolation prize in the second round when they took Boyd, but was the need for a top-end playmaker satisfied a year ago? No.
Can it be addressed this year? Yes.
Of course, the success of the offense this season is predicated upon a lot of things. They need to bolster the run game, and they'll definitely be addressing running back in the coming days. (I think the departure of Rex Burkhead was a good thing, because it creates more urgency to get better in the backfield) And perhaps no question looms larger heading into next year than the one about how the Bengals improve their offensive line play without their best two blockers from last season, but this year's class of running backs is a deep one, and even if you're like me and still pissed about both Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler leaving, they have been planning for their respective exits for a while. They can add one of the top wide receivers, and instantly become an absolute bitch to gameplan against, they can provide good-but-limited Andy Dalton with an enviable group of targets, and whatever strides they need to make running the ball and blocking up front can be aided by having a quality, diverse set of pass-catching threats.
The Bengals have a lot of needs as the draft approaches, none more pressing than the need to excel at something. If they get one of this year's best wideouts, that need will be filled instantly.