This was an older story that I had planned (and partially written) during training camp but it was shoved to the vault (where partially written stories go that weren't working or developing at the time). Following Cincinnati's regular season opener in Chicago, I figured now would be a good time to take stock on Cincinnati's youngest players drafted in the past three years. We'll break them down into The Majors, The Contributors, and The Waiting. [Note: Not every draft pick is featured]
THE MAJOR PLAYERS
A.J. Green, No. 4 in '11, WR: A two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver with 162 receptions in his first two seasons -- second-most by a player in his first two seasons in NFL history, Green joins Chad Johnson as the only Bengals receivers with 1,350 yards receiving or more in a season. Posted 163 yards receiving and two touchdowns during the regular season opener in Chicago, but had his SMH moments too. Both of Dalton's interceptions came with Green as the target, and one of those being a well-placed ball that bounced off his hands. Also had a fumble that was accidentally (thank god) kicked out of bounds.
Andy Dalton, No. 35 in '11, QB: Having already earned a Pro Bowl spot during his rookie season in 2011, Dalton enters his third season having thrown 47 touchdowns while compiling a starting record of 19-13 in the regular season and consecutive postseason berths. Looked good against Chicago, but some people will label both interceptions to Dalton when we know that that's not necessarily fair.
Clint Boling, No. 101 in '11, OG: After struggling in '11 as Bobbie Williams' replacement (who served a four-game suspension at the time), Boling was impressive in '12 especially as a pass protector. If not for a significant struggle against the Philadelphia Eagles, he would have generated one of the top pass blocking scores (per Pro Football Focus) among all offensive guards in the NFL.
Kevin Zeitler, No. 27 in '12, OG: Day one starter as a rookie, ranked as the seventh-best starting right guard in the NFL (per PFF) last year. As a rookie. In the AFC North. Then he went on to score the top PFF score among all Bengals offensive linemen against the Bears. Who loves Kevin Zeitler? You do.
Vontaze Burfict, College Free Agent in '12, LB: Technically not a draft pick, but overall fear for my well-being demanded inclusion. In one year and 18 games played, Burfict has become one of the more reliable defenders who is (if not already) on his way to becoming the emotional defensive leader. Hell, he's already calling the plays in the huddle. If Atkins is the Zeus on Cincinnati's defense, Burfict is the god of war, Aries.
Mohamed Sanu, No. 83 in '12, WR: You know the story. Didn't play much at the beginning of his rookie year -- save for a 73-yard touchdown pass against Washington. But when he came on midway through the year, replacing the injured Marvin Jones, Sanu showed an impressive ability to shield defenders in tight coverage. Rough start in '13, but even contributors have bad outings.
George Iloka, No. 167 in '12, S: Started against the Chicago Bears and played all but one snap during the opener. Finished with four tackles (fifth on the team) and a solid PFF rating against the run. To be honest, I'm not necessarily sure what to make of Iloka yet, but that tends to happen with a guy who only recently made his first NFL start.
Tyler Eifert, No. 21 in '13, TE: Fantastic start for a promising career with five receptions and 47 yards receiving (both second-highest on the team). His 17-yard reception was the longest offensive play by a Bengals player not named A.J. Green.
Giovani Bernard, No. 37 in '13, RB: Only generated 30 yards from scrimmage, including a 5.5 yard/rush average, against Chicago; though he had a 14-yard run nullified on an offensive hold. When we start scratching the surface on what this kid can do, he may shoot up to Rookie of the Year discussions. Alright, probably not (because many rookie of the year winners are starters and Bernard figures to split time, at best, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis). But still.
THE WAITING ROOM
Dre Kirkpatrick, No. 17 in '12, CB: After battling knee issues during his rookie year, the second-year cornerback has already sustained his second concussion in his brief NFL career earlier during the preseason. Played the opener in Chicago, but had no snaps on defense and 11 on special teams (including a personal foul late in the first half). At least he generated one special teams stop.
Devon Still, No. 53 in '12, DT: Only participated in ten defensive snaps against the Bears, but it was clear that the Bengals intend to use Still to help rotate Geno Atkins out when the two-time Pro Bowler needs a rest. Batted a Jay Cutler pass down at the line of scrimmage but also recorded a missed tackle.
Brandon Thompson, No. 93 in '12, DT: Maybe it's just me, but I really like this kid. He's a Domata Peko in development, and maybe an eventual upgrade (but let's give some time before another outlandish prediction on one regular season game). Only participated in nine defensive snaps against the Bears, but scored the fourth-best score against the run with a beautiful solo tackle at the line of scrimmage.
Marvin Jones, No. 166 in '12, WR: I like Jones, but I'm still waiting for something more. Was often the third receiver in three-wide sets (Sanu moved to the slot), but was targeted only twice with one reception. Loved his indecisive attempted jump over defenders during his 14-yard end around. Now that's on film, he can hesitate to jump and waltz around them.
Ryan Whalen, No. 167 in '11, WR: Whalen is a fine player, but he was inactive against the Bears and has largely become a backup plan in case someone else on the roster suffers an injury. Considering that everyone, from Green, to Sanu and Jones, have missed time with injuries during their respective careers, it's a safe move. Other than that, I'm not sure if we'll see much of him... and we won't once Andrew Hawkins returns.
Orson Charles, No. 116 in '12, TE/FB: Only participated with seven snaps and posted a negative run blocker score, according to PFF. No targets. Mostly a third tight end or first full back in goalline situation. I'll be honest. I'm not sure if the Bengals know how to use him just yet but I'm still looking forward to seeing what he'll do given the opportunities.
Shawn Williams, No. 84 in '13, S: With George Iloka winning the position battle at safety during the preseason, Williams has largely been relegated to a special teams role this year. Participated in 19 special teams snaps -- second-most behind Vinnie Rey -- but no tackles.
Margus Hunt, No 53 in '13, DE: Unless there's an injury at defensive end, don't expect much of Hunt this year. He may get special teams snaps, but it's going to be a developing process. This was expected from the onset.
Rex Burkhead, No. 190 in '13, RB: As the fourth running back, Burkhead figures to be an inactive player unless there's an injury or a philosophical decision to pound the football against an upcoming opponent.
A bit dated, but we're slow on some things. Pro Football Focus gave left tackle Anthony Collins, Michael Johnson, and Carlos Dunlap significantly positive grades. Even Geno Atkins received the third-highest grade on defense (one hit, three hurries). Domata Peko and Rey Maualuga? Not so much (though most of Maualuga's negative score was the penalty at the end of the game).
PFF's 32 observations:
Only two tight ends in Week 1 saw more than three targets and maintained a perfect catch rate. Those tight ends were Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham who had five catches each.