Return of the Joker?


When draft time rolls around, you can usually find my flag planted firmly in camp defensive tackle, a position that the Bengals have largely ignored in the defensively challenged Mike Brown era. During his father’s tenure, the Bengals routinely spent top picks on DTs. In the 24 years from 1968 through 1991, Cincinnati used eight top-three selections — three firsts, two seconds, and three thirds — on defensive tackles, an average of one pick every three years. Over the following 17 drafts, the team used two, count ’em, two picks on DTs, a first-rounder in 1994 for Dan Wilkinson, and a third round selection last April on Pat Sims. Needless to say, I believe that the perennial neglect of the DT spot is a major reason the Bengals’ defense has finished in the bottom half of the league in 15 out of the last 17 years.

But for a change, DT strikes me as at least okay going into 2009. The Bengals found something of a gem in the fourth round of the 2006 draft when they chose DT Domata Peko, who signed a $30.3 million extension last June. Peko is solid if unspectacular and proved a good match with Sims this past season. If fifth-round project Jason Shirley pans out (and yes, that’s a big “if”), the Bengals will be further set in the middle of the line. All of which is a good thing, as 2009 looks to be a weak year for defensive tackles in the draft.

So between that and the twin big-money deals already handed out to defensive ends Robert Geathers ($32.5 million in 2007) and Antwan Odom ($29.5 million in 2008), I’ve largely dismissed defensive line as an option for the Bengals in the first round. There was no DT worth the sixth overall, and with something on the order of $70 million invested in DE between Geathers, Odom and Jonathan Fanene, who also signed a contract extension last year, it was almost impossible to see the Bengals dedicating even more money and cap space to the position, despite a meager 17 sacks last season.

But as mock draft season cranks up, I’m starting to see more top fives that shake out like Lou’s over at Draft King, another one of my favorite mock draft sites. Lou, like Todd McShay, sends a QB to Kansas City at 3, and as a result, Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo remains on the board at six.

That’s hard to pass up. Very hard. In fact, Lou thinks Cincy pulls the trigger. Over at The Football Expert, Michael Abromowitz doesn’t. After careful consideration (OK, after about 0.3 seconds thought) I have to side with Lou: if Orakpo is there at six, the Bengals should run, not walk, to the phone. Winner of the Bronco Nagurski Trophy, Orakpo can rush the passer or drop into coverage, and could play OLB as well as DE. In other words, Orakpo is an excellent fit for the “joker” role that Georgia DE David Pollack was drafted to fill back in 2005. And as such he would give an emerging Bengals defense exactly what it needs: a scary playmaker capable of scrambling the best-laid plans of opposing offensive co-ordinators.

The obvious objection to this line of thought is that the Bengals’ offensive line is simply too much of a disaster zone to consider going in any other direction with the first pick. However, the situation at tackle may not be as dire as once thought thanks to the ability shown by 2008 fourth-round pick Anthony Collins, who had he stayed in school could have been a first-round pick this year. Moreover, like last year, this year’s draft is strong with offensive line prospects, and in contrast to many other positions the Bengals have done well when when plucking linemen out of the second (see Steinbach, Eric and Whitworth, Andrew). Orakpo in the first, followed by some combination of center and tackle in the second and third rounds, sounds like a tasty draft to me.