Pro Football Focus is keeping tabs on the league's top rookies this year. It essentially comes down to this... Oakland Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack and St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald are impressing folks with their ability to challenge the run. Offensive guards Joel Bitonio (Browns) and Zach Martin (Cowboys) are holding their own as are linebackers C.J. Mosley (Ravens) and Anthony Barr (Vikings).
But where are Cincinnati's rookies?
Sure, some are playing, even starting. Yet this year's class seems to be quieter than previous crews. The argument, reasonable as it is, classifies this year's class (and even last year's) as roster-building for tomorrow. Waiting in the wings are players like cornerback Darqueze Dennard, defensive ends Margus Hunt and Will Clarke, linebackers Marquise Flowers, Sean Porter and Jayson DiManche (a former college free agent). Running back Rex Burkhead, drafted in the '13 NFL draft has been watching Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, currently keeping Burkhead huddled on the bench as a contingency. Seventh-rounder James Wright has played 80 snaps on offense this year and been the target of six passes. His highlight this year -- no, his entire NFL career -- was a 24-yarder in overtime that put Cincinnati on Carolina's 16-yard line, giving Mike Nugent an opportunity to kick the game-winning field goal (he didn't and the game ended in a tie). Lavelle Westbrooks and Reid Fragel are already gone. Wide receiver Cobi Hamilton left and then returned, joining the team's practice squad for a second season.
Of the 18 players drafted by the Bengals during the 2013 and 2014 class, Tyler Eifert (16), Giovani Bernard (7), and Russell Bodine (7), are the only players with more than one start.
Jeremy Hill, who has started once this year, has rushed for 195 yards this season and sports a mediocre 3.9 yard/rush average -- he has also struggled (with Cincinnati facing big deficits) since the team's week four bye.
During previous classes, the Bengals had Dre Kirkpatrick, Kevin Zeitler, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones, George Iloka, Brandon Thompson and Devon Still in 2012... all of whom are significant role players or starters. The year before that Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, alongside starting guard Clint Boling, were drafted. Dontay Moch continued a historical trend in which Cincinnati's third-round picks are more likely to disappoint you. And in 2010, the Bengals drafted Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins and Jermaine Gresham. Jordan Shipley was part of this class, but after tearing his ACL and MCL in 2011, Shipley's career was essentially done (he did have stints in Tampa Bay and Jacksonville). Chase Coffman was a third-rounder that year (third rounders before him were actually good acquisitions).
There's obvious reason for the relative absent discussion about Cincinnati's rookies this year. During previous draft classes, Cincinnati was faced with a necessity whereas the previous two years were termed luxurious. Guys like Hunt and Clarke are being groomed to eventually replace Michael Johnson's steady anchorage -- currently held down by a rotation of Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers. Jeremy Hill was an upgrade over BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Cincinnati has their newest generation of combo cornerbacks in Dennard and Kirkpatrick, learning behind three first-round corners in Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Terence Newman.
In the end, nothing is wrong. Rookies need at least three years to receive judgment about their value compared to the team's investment. Still, when you read about rookies in the NFL, sometimes you just wonder... where are our guys. And then you remind yourself that they're there... waiting and developing for tomorrow.