CINCINNATI -- We’ll never know if the Bengals would have rather had one the wide receivers that went right before their pick.
But what we do know is that they really like Will Jackson III, the cornerback they got with the 24th pick in the draft Thursday night.
It goes with the Bengals’ way in recent years of drafting to the top player on their board above need. That has been a cornerback three of the last six years. They took Dre Kirkpatrick with their first pick in 2012 and Darqueze Dennard with their first pick in 2014. Their other two picks in that span -- tight end Tyler Eifert (2013) and offensive tackle Cedric Ogbruehi (2015) -- did not fill an immediate need.
Jackson, out of Houston, ran a 4.35 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. But beyond that, he led the nation in 23 pass breakups this year at Houston. At 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, he also has the length the Bengals like in corners.
“He’s a guy we feel can come in right away and be part of our 46-man roster on Sundays,” Marvin Lewis said. “He’s a young guy who can contribute defensively. He has excellent athletic skills -- speed, length -- a lot of qualities to develop into a fine corner in the National Football League. He has the ability to play the football in the air and not be cumbersome around receivers. We really felt like he had great skills.”
Wide speculation was that the Bengals would take a wide receiver after losing Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu and their 88 catches to free agency. But the top four wideouts were gone by the time the Bengals picked. Corey Coleman of Baylor went 15th to the Cleveland Browns. Then receivers went in the three picks immediately before the Bengals at 24th:
21) Will Fuller of Notre Dame to Houston
22) Josh Doctson of Texas Christian to Washington
23) Laquon Treadwell of Ole Miss to Minnesota
“They got players who we felt like would be productive in the league,” Lewis said. “A lot players went before us that we wouldn’t have minded having. But we got one of the ones we really wanted. We felt good about that.”
BROO'S VIEW: Bengals got outmaneuvered
The good news for the Bengals? The Pittsburgh Steelers wanted Jackson. In fact, he thought he’d get the call from them.
“I definitely did,” Jackson said.
The Steelers took cornerback Artie Burns from the Miami with the very next pick, in fact.
The old “you can never have too many cornerbacks” cliché came up with the Bengals. The club has starters Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones returning at corner, along with Dennard and last year’s fourth-round pick Josh Shaw as back-ups.
“They’re a need and they play,” Lewis said. “We’ll continue to develop them. Sometimes, they’re not the right player. We feel like he fits what we do defensively.”
Bottom line on Jackson, though, is he can run -- the most important asset of a corner.
“Will is really, really fast,” defensive back coach Kevin Coyle said. “He impressed us with his ability to tract the ball with his speed. He’s not just a fast guy. He gets his hands on a ton of ball. He’s got the acceleration to get to balls that some guys can’t get to.”
The Bengals had Jackson in for a visit about two weeks ago and were impressed.
“The guy was one of the fastest guys at the Combine,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “He’s a tall corner,which we like. There’s certain traits in corners we like. The more background we did on this guy, the more we watched him on tape, the more we were impressed with this guy.
“He came in for a visit. We had a really good visit. We wanted to see if he could pick up defense fairly quickly. He proved that to us. When we look at the corners in the draft, I think this guy has the highest upside, really.”
Guenther liked the fact that Jackson played a lot of one-on-one at Houston.
“When he said that’s how he liked to play, I thought he’s a fit for us,” Guenther said.
Would a wideout have been a better a pick? We’ll find out when we see how good Jackson is. But the Bengals were happy Thursday night.
John Fay is a freelance sports columnist. This column represents his opinion.