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Cincinnati Bengals: Masters of the Trade?

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Are the Cincinnati Bengals under-appreciated for their ability to make good trades?

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to an abysmal decade in the 1990’s, the Cincinnati Bengals’ front office worked hard to earn the label of being cheap and inept. A long streak of losing seasons, lousy drafts, and second-rate free agent acquisitions helped solidify this negative view of the Bengals’ management.

But the perception and reality of this view has finally changed. Due to some consecutive solid draft classes and good success in the regular season, the Bengals are now viewed as a well-run organization (more or less). They don’t over-pay for free agents, they develop their own talent, and they keep finding a way to get into the playoffs.

One often-overlooked aspect is their ability in making (non-draft day) trades. Most NFL fans don’t often think about their team’s non-draft day trades. And there is a good reason for this – outside of the draft day madness that occurs sometimes during the first round of the NFL draft, the league just isn’t a heavy trading league.

With their urban neighbors, Major League Baseball’s Cincinnati Reds, poised to become active in baseball’s annual flurry of trades that take place between the All-Star game and the trade deadline (July 31), let’s take a look back at the trades the Bengals have made during the last eight years and see how they have fared.

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09/01/2007 Bengals traded a seventh round draft pick (#217 overall – Brett Swain, WR) in the 2008 draft to the St. Louis Rams for backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Brett Swain spent four seasons in the NFL as a deep backup wide receiver, and played special teams. He compiled 8 catches for 87 yards, and recorded 5 tackles during his career.

Ryan Fitzpatrick spent a few seasons as a backup quarterback before a season-ending Carson Palmer injury turned him into an NFL starter. While his season as a starter in Cincinnati was not memorable (70.0 QB Rating), it did mark the beginning of his career as a nominal NFL starter. Fitzpatrick has started for Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tennessee, and Houston, during which time he has totaled 19,273 passing yards, 123 touchdowns and 101 Interceptions.

The trade worked out well for Cincinnati, as it provided them with a much better player who was able to start for them when Carson Palmer went down with an injury.

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05/07/2009 Bengals traded defensive tackle Orien Harris to the St. Louis Rams for running back Brian Leonard.

Orien Harris was a prime candidate to get cut as he faced a daunting task of making the Bengals’ roster with Domata Peko, Tank Johnson, Pat Sims, and Jonathan Fanene ahead of him. Instead of cutting him and getting nothing in return, the Bengals managed to acquire Brian Leonard for a guy they were not going to keep anyway. Harris failed to appear in any games for the Rams, and was ultimately let go.

Brian Leonard played four seasons for the Bengals as a backup running back, and special teams contributor. In his four years in Cincinnati he totaled 336 rushing yards (on 3.9 yards per carry) and 631 receiving yards.

The trade was a win for Cincinnati. Not only did Leonard contribute for the Bengals, but during the 2009 season the Bengals added, you guessed it, Orien Harris to the roster when defensive tackles Peko and Johnson missed seven games between the two of them.

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09/04/2010 Bengals traded defensive back David Jones to the Jacksonville Jaguars for free safety Reggie Nelson.

After failing to latch on with the New Orleans Saints, who drafted him in 2007, David Jones became a decent backup defensive back for the Bengals. He compiled 56 tackles during three seasons with 7 starts in 33 games played. Heading into the 2009 season, Jones faced an uphill battle to break into a secondary which included Jonathan Joseph, Leon Hall, Roy Williams, Nedu Ndukwe, Adam Jones, Morgan Trent, and preseason star Tom Nelson. Instead of cutting him, the Bengals managed to trade him for former 1st round pick Reggie Nelson. In Jacksonville, Jones played only two seasons, where he totaled 37 tackles and 1 interception.

Nelson had been solid, but unspectacular for the Jaguars, and management was ready to move on from the safety who had failed to live up to his first round draft status. Nelson became a starter for the Bengals by the end of his first season with the team, and since then has been a solid fixture in the secondary. Over the last five seasons, Nelson has amassed 388 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 15 interceptions.

The trade was a big win for the Bengals. Jones only started five games after the trade before finding his way out of the league a few seasons ago. Meanwhile Nelson has been a very good safety for the Bengals and led the team in interceptions in 2014.

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10/18/2011 Bengals traded quarterback Carson Palmer to the Oakland Raiders a first round draft choice in the 2012 draft and a conditional second-round choice in the 2013 draft.

This trade is perhaps the first one that comes to mind for most Bengals’ fans, since it followed Palmer’s insistence that he was calling it quits, and would no longer play in Cincinnati. The decision not to trade Palmer initially seemed like a bad one for the Bengals until the Raiders lost Jason Campbell, and Oakland came calling with a pair of high picks in exchange for the formerly elite QB.

Palmer gave Oakland 24 starts before signing with Arizona after the 2012 season. In those 24 starts, Palmer managed to go 8-16 with an 83.5 QB Rating. While those numbers aren’t exactly great, they were an upgrade for a Raiders team who only recently had ended the failed JaMarcus Russell experiment.

With those picks, the Bengals acquired Dre Kirkpatrick and Giovani Bernard. Kirkpatrick has failed to earn a starting spot in the secondary yet, though 2015 looks to be his year. Bernard has been reduced to a secondary role in the backfield due to Jeremy Hill’s breakout season in 2014, but is still a highly regarded player who has done well with the team. It’s hard not to call this trade a win for the Bengals, when they were poised to get nothing in return for Carson Palmer after he decided he was done playing in Cincinnati. Who would have thought Mike Brown’s stubbornness would pay off?

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08/29/2011 Bengals traded defensive tackle Clinton McDonald to the Seattle Seahawks for cornerback Kelly Jennings.

Drafted out of Memphis, McDonald spent 2009 on the Bengals’ practice squad before playing eight games in 2010 with four tackles. McDonald spent two seasons as a backup for the Seahawks before coming into his own with 5.5 sacks (the first of his career) in 2013. He turned this into a free agent contract with Tampa, where he became a full-time starter last season (his sixth season in the league).

Kelly Jennings was a mediocre starter who joined the Bengals and spent one year as a backup cornerback before seeing his career come to an end. He contributed 33 tackles and no interceptions for Cincinnati. The trade was pretty much a wash until three years later when Clinton developed into a late bloomer.

This trade could be seen as underwhelming for Cincinnati, given that Kelly was only a one year backup for the Bengals.

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07/29/2011 Bengals traded wide receiver Chad Ochocinco to the New England Patriots for a fifth round draft pick (#166 - Marvin Jones, WR) in the 2012 draft, and a sixth round draft pick (#197 - Cobi Hamilton, WR) in the 2013 draft.

Love him or hate him, at one time Chad Johnson/Ochocinco was an elite wide receiver, twice being awarded First Team All-Pro honors. Perhaps he was too self-absorbed in his antics. Perhaps he ran the wrong routes. Perhaps he had passed his prime. Perhaps he had some good football remaining? The Patriots offered some late picks because they wanted to find out.

With 5’9" Deion Branch and 5’9" Wes Welker as their top wide receivers, Chad Johnson was supposed to give the Patriots a little more size and speed to stretch the field. Instead, Johnson finished sixth on the Patriots in receptions with 15 catches on 32 targets for 276 yards and 1 touchdown. That season was Johnson’s only in New England. A failed attempt to make the Miami Dolphins’ roster the following year ended his NFL career.

Marvin Jones has emerged as a legitimate No. 2 wide receiver in the league. In his second year he racked up 10 touchdowns on 51 receptions and 712 yards. The trade has worked out well for the Bengals who were able to unload a locker room disturbance, and player whose best days were well behind him, in exchange for a good, young wide receiver.

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08/23/2011 Benglas traded a seventh round draft pick in the 2013 NFL draft (#227 – Garrett Gilkey, OL) to the San Francisco 49ers for safety Taylor Mays.

After burning a second round pick on Taylor Mays, the 49ers realized they had overpaid for the safety who was more hype than playmaker. Hoping to save face, and not outright cut him, they managed to dump him for a late seventh round pick. The pick was ultimately traded to the Browns as part of a package for backup quarterback Colt McCoy (who attempted one pass in his one season with the 49ers). Garrett Gilkey, who was selected by Cleveland with the pick has been with two teams in two years as a backup offensive lineman.

While not a starter, Taylor Mays somehow found a spot on the Bengals roster for the last four seasons. He played 50 games (4 starts), contributing 84 tackles, 1 sack, and 1 safety for the team. He was signed in free agency by the Vikings this offseason but was later cut and then signed by the Lions.

The trade turned into a win for Cincinnati, who received a four year role player in exchange for a deep backup offensive lineman.

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04/12/2012 Bengals traded linebacker Keith Rivers to the New York Giants for a fifth round draft pick (#167 - George Iloka, S) in the 2012 draft.

Staying on the topic of over-drafted, under-productive defensive players from USC, let’s look at a linebacker the Bengals drafted a bit too high for what he gave them. No, not Rey Maualuga, but Keith Rivers. Taken one spot before an actually productive linebacker (Jerod Mayo), Rivers failed to impress during his time in Cincinnati. Rivers played in 35 of a possible 64 games, never reaching 80 total tackles in any season.

After he was traded to the Giants, Rivers gave New York an average of 41 tackles, 0 sacks, and 0 interceptions during two seasons spent with the team, splitting time as a backup and starter. Rivers had a chance for redemption when the Giants came to Cincinnati in the 2012 season, but he missed the Giants’ 31-13 defeat with an injury.

George Iloka, thanks to a draft day slide due to a slow 40 time, fell to the Bengals’ fifth round draft spot in 2012. After spending his first year as a backup, Iloka has become a productive starter averaging 2 interceptions and 74 tackles during the last two seasons.

The trade has worked out well for the Bengals, as they have a good, young producer in their secondary in exchange for an underwhelming backup linebacker who has bounced around since his departure from the Queen City.

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Overall, the Bengals have managed to make good trades. And this is something that seems to slide under the radar of most Bengals’ fans, but deserves to be recognized.