Short of shedding themselves of Dalton, the Bengals will have to continue to build the offense around the erratic Dalton. The NFL Scouting Combine will provide the Bengals with the opportunity to focus on some of the underclassmen who left college early for the NFL draft.
Here are five early entry participants in the NFL combine who might find themselves under scrutiny by the Bengals' coaches and scouting staff:
The misnomer of a nickname for Tennessee tackle Antonio Richardson is "Tiny". At 6-6, 327 pounds, there's nothing tiny about Richardson, but there are some doubts about Richardson that rival his size. Is Richardson a heavy-legged waist bender who will be beat like a drum on the edge in space in pass protection, or can he engulf all would-be NFL pass rushers with his massive frame?
If the Bengals don't decide to sign their free-agent starting left tackle at season's end, Anthony Collins, the team will prioritize a left tackle in the 2014 draft if the team is likewise intent upon keeping former left tackle Andrew Whitworth at left guard. Among underclassmen, Greg Robinson of Auburn and Cyrus Kouandijio are likely to be more coveted by NFL teams heading into the combine, but Richardson has a chance to impress teams enough to make his mark and garner the Bengals attention as a potential first-round pick.
Stanford guard David Yankey may not last to the second round of the 2014 NFL draft. One of the teams who could pounce upon Yankey towards the end of the first round is the Bengals. Should the top left tackles all be taken by the time the Bengals pick in the first round, the Bengals could strongly consider Yankey for their selection.
For the early draft entry Yankey to gain first-round consideration from the Bengals, the team would have to pass on re-signing Collins and be willing to return the veteran Whitworth to left tackle because Yankey would be the left guard of the future for the Bengals if he is their first-round pick.
Like his former Notre Dame teammate, Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas will have his chance to be a high draft pick and contribute immediately to an NFL team. However, Niklas (6-6,270) is more like another Notre Dame tight end, Kyle Rudolph, in his blocking ability.
The Bengals aren't likely to burn a first-round pick for a tight end since they do have Eifert and former first-round pick Jermaine Gresham under contract. Gresham stands to earn nearly $3.5 million in the final year of his contract with the Bengals and is a possible salary cap casualty if the Bengals can pluck an NFL-ready tight end like Niklas in the draft and plug him in right away.
As a wide receiver, LSU early draft entry Odell Beckham may be drafted alone on his merit to be a NFL wide receiver. His size may cause some heartburn for NFL teams, who may see Beckham as strictly a slot receiver and a third or fourth option. Given that scenario, Beckham wouldn't be drafted high if his value as a wide receiver were that limited.
Of course, Beckham has the added dimension of kickoff and punt returner, which combined with his attributes as a receiver would boost his draft stock. How high his return skills boost his overall value remains to be seen, but if Beckham is still available in the third round when the Bengals pick, the temptation would be there to pick Beckham and make him the replacement for returner Brandon Tate, who is a free agent.
The decision by Adam Muema to leave San Diego State a year early was met with some criticism, but Muema is convinced he was ready after back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Anyone who watched Muema rush for 229 yards as the Aztecs laid waste to Buffalo in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl had to wonder how much of what Muema displayed could translate to a NFL field.
As such, Muema may be one of the most scrutinized underclass running backs at the combine. Depending upon how he fares at the combine in the eyes of NFL teams, Muema may see his stock rise from the depths of a late-round projection. The Bengals are in decent shape in the backfield with BenJarvus Green-Ellis under contract for another year and rookie sensation Giovani Bernard poised to be the Bengals' primary back for the next three years.
But if Muema is available to the Bengals in the second half of the draft, he'll make for an intriguing talent to consider and might find his way to Cincinnati.
Robb Hoff has worked as a freelance researcher for ESPN's production and news departments for more than five years. He posts his NFL draft predictions each year at footballnostradamus.com.
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