Let me set the scene for you. On January 14th, 2003 the Bengals world was set on fire by hire of one of the top coaching prospects in the game: Marvin Lewis. In his first year as head coach, the Bengals drafted top QB prospect Carson Palmer, and improved to 8-8, finishing second in the AFC North behind the Baltimore Ravens. The Bengals had a lot of hope and momentum going into 2004, and it seemed as though for the first time in history, Mike Brown was actually making smart personnel decisions...
Enter the 2004 NFL draft. The Bengals, who originally held the 17th pick in the draft, traded with Denver for cornerback Deltha O'Neal, the 24th (1st round) and the 117th picks (4th round), putting them in a perfect position to select one of the top running back prospects in 2004: Steven Jackson. At this point you can almost see the mouse in Mike Brown's brain furiously running on his wheel, like he had never run before -- the Bengals were actually acquiring draft picks and making smart moves, positioning themselves to be where they wanted to be come draft time. Unfortunately for Bengals fans across the nation, that mouse was about to have a stroke. Drunk with success, Brown decided to trade his recently acquired 24th pick with the St. Louis Rams for the 26th and 123rd pick in the draft.
The Bengals get Chris Perry. The Rams get Steven Jackson. The rest, as you all know, is history.
Those trades weren't all bad. Deltha O'Neal had some productive seasons with the Bengals, including a ten-interception Pro Bowl year in 2005. The Bengals also picked up some productive players with their newly acquired fourth round draft picks in Robert Geathers and Stacy Andrews. Chris Perry had some productive years in Cincinnati as a third down back, behind Rudi Johnson on the depth chart, particularly in 2005 falling four receptions short of James Brooks' record for most receptions by a running back. And maybe with Rudi in his prime, they didn't need a number one back on the team. But let's get real here -- most of us would probably trade Robert Geathers, Stacy Andrews and our left arm to see Steven Jackson in stripes today.
Why bring this up now after seven long years? Well, for one, there has been a lot of discussion among the Bengals faithful about what to do with the number four overall pick in the draft. And the 2004 trade-down-palooza was the perfect example of the upside and the downside of moving back.
The upside of trading back means gaining quantity of players (duh). For the Bengals, it actually worked in their favor that year. They were able to pick up solid contributors in Deltha O'Neal, Stacy Andrews and Robert Geathers. None of these players ever set the world on fire, but all of them made an impact on the team throughout their careers.
The down side of trading down gets talked about less frequently these days. The tendency is to praise GMs like Ozzie Newsome (Baltimore) or Scott Pioli (New England) when they trade down and pick up talent that has fallen in the draft. However, Chris Perry is the prime example of how that strategy can backfire. By trading back, teams often sacrifice quality for quantity. Instead of getting one of the best RBs of the past decade, the Bengals picked up an injury prone situational back whose career fizzled out after four mostly disappointing seasons in the NFL.
Trading down is not the golden ticket to success in the draft. The Bengals missed out by passing on Steven Jackson (imagining the combo of Palmer and Jackson makes me cry a little bit), and though they gained some solid role players, we would probably be having a very different conversation today if Mike Brown had stayed put at pick 24 in 2004.
Should the Bengals trade down this year? Maybe move down in the draft to pick up Julio Jones? I won't argue either way, except to suggest that if they do, they'd better not pass up on the next Steven Jackson for another role player.