There’s so much hype surrounding the 2017 NFL Draft, as it just 11 days from kicking off in Philadelphia. The Cincinnati Bengals pick at no. 9 and should get a playmaker with that first-round pick.
But after it’s all said and done and Cincinnati makes its 11 selections, there’s still a load of pieces on the Bengals that (hopefully) will make up a playoff-bound puzzle.
So, which Bengal has the most to prove this season?
Here are a few guys that come to mind:
RB, Jeremy Hill
Hill hasn’t been able to duplicate his rookie heroics of 2014. Despite 20 rushing touchdowns in the last two seasons combined, Hill has averaged less than four yards per carry.
Last season, the LSU product struggled against every team not named the Cleveland Browns. Against the division-rival, Hill turned in his only 100-yard performances since 2014, hitting triple digits and scoring a touchdown in both meetings.
In his 13 other games, though, Hill averaged less than three yards per carry (188 attempts for 560 yards) and was held under 50 rushing yards nine times.
Hill is entering a contract year, with his rookie deal set to expire. However, he is not worried about potential running back prospects coming to Cincinnati via the draft. He is also been working out this offseason working on lateral quickness, agility, and breaking more tackles.
A third-straight sub-par season for Hill could spell the end of his line in the Queen City. Giovani Bernard, 25, is still in the prime of his career and the Bengals have to give him a reliable backfield partner.
TE, Tyler Eifert
Eifert has become a real dilemma to work with in Cincinnati. After a 13-touchdown season in 2015, he injured his foot in the Pro Bowl. Then, a back issue kept him inactive until late-October last season. Overall in 2016, he played in six full games and was used sparingly in two (vs. CLE, vs. PIT) before landing on the IR the day after Christmas.
Eifert has missed 27 games in four years and he’s yet to play a full season. The problem is that it’s not that easy for Cincinnati to let go of the injury-prone pass-catcher. He has 18 touchdowns over the last two seasons, the most by any tight end in the NFL.
The tight end’s base salary of $4.7 million will be the highest of his career. But, the Pro-Bowler is looking for his mega deal for 2018. Like Rob Gronkowski, another injury-riddled scoring machine, who signed a six-year, $54 million extension before the 2012 season.
Eifert seems confident that he will be ready to go in 2017. That’s good news, considering that he and A.J. Green combined for 28 catches, 387 receiving yards, and a pair of touchdowns in the two full games they played together.
OT, Cedric Ogbuehi
Trying to avoid “bust” status makes a season more important. Ogbuehi was the starting right tackle for over half of 2016 before being benched. With Andrew Whitworth out of the picture, Ogbuehi will shift over to protect Andy Dalton‘s blindside.
Ogbuehi played sparingly at left tackle at Texas A&M. He will have to step up his play with the current state of Cincinnati’s front five. Both tackle spots are a mystery at the moment. On the right side, Jake Fisher, another underwhelming member of the 2015 class, is with veterans Andre Smith and Eric Winston. Smith is expected to transition to play right guard, replacing Kevin Zeitler.
Ogbuehi is under contract through the 2018 season. He will earn a base salary of $1.7 million this year.
CB, Darqueze Dennard
Dennard is also trying to avoid a bust label for the Bengals. In three seasons, he’s made just four starts, collecting 56 tackles and one interception.
He started the first three games of last season, but was quickly pulled from the lineup. In week two against Pittsburgh, he gave up gains of 53 and 44 yards to Sammie Coates, resulting in 14 points in the first of six one-possession losses last year for the Bengals.
Alongside Dre Kirkpatrick, the Bengals are looking for a stable secondary in the future. Adam Jones, the number two corner, is on the back end of his career and Cincinnati is looking to find Kirkpatrick’s next partner.
Dennard and fellow first-rounder William Jackson III are likely candidates. Jackson was injured all of last year, so 2017 will be a deciding time between the young-guns of the secondary.