ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has switched from offense to defense in his latest first-round projections for the Bengals in the 2018 mock draft.
Kiper and fellow draft analyst Todd McShay appeared to be on the same page in their dueling mock drafts on Wednesday, and it was clear the recent suspension of linebacker Vontaze Burfict played a role in their thinking.
Both projected the Bengals to take a linebacker at No. 21 overall in the NFL draft. McShay projected Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans to Cincinnati, while Kiper projected Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch to go to the Bengals. Evans had already gone off the board to the Dallas Cowboys in Kiper's mock.
It's a switch for Kiper, who projected UCLA tackle Kolton Miller to the Bengals in his last two mock drafts, even after the Bengals traded for Bills LT Cordy Glenn and moved from No. 12 to No. 21 in this year's draft.
The Bengals place a premium on tackles and it wouldn't be off the table even with the addition of Glenn. Jake Fisher, who didn't finish the season due to a heart issue, hasn't proven himself to be starting caliber yet.
However, Burfict's suspension does change things. Even if Burfict manages to get his four-game suspension for PEDs overturned, it's become clear the Bengals can't rely on him. While his backup Vincent Rey has been suitable, the Bengals really need to consider drafting his successor.
Vander Esch, (6-foot-4, 256 pounds) is an interesting choice because of his knack for forcing turnovers as a junior last year (three interceptions, four forced fumbles). That's something the Bengals have lacked and have been looking to fix. But he has just one year of starting experience in college, which could be concerning to a team like the Bengals who often bring their rookies along slowly.
It's the same story for Evans, who had to sit behind Reuben Foster, another player the Bengals were considering last year. Evans led Alabama with 74 tackles in 2017 (13 for loss), with six sacks and three pass breakups.
Kiper stuck with defense in the second round, projecting Stanford defensive tackle Harrison Phillips to go to Cincinnati. McShay went with Ohio State center Billy Price, assuming he drops to the second round due to a partial pectoral tear sustained at the NFL scouting combine.
Price would make more sense here than in the first, because the Bengals rarely take an interior offensive lineman in the first round. They found center Russell Bodine in the fourth round, but now need a replacement after he left in free agency.