Building an NFL team capable of making five straight playoffs is one of the harder things to do in any professional sport. That's what the Bengals have done, but it's not been with high draft picks or big spending in free agency. Those are the strategies we see teams like Washington, Cleveland and Tampa Bay use annually hoping to rise quickly, only to fall even quicker.
Cincinnati takes a different approach. Instead of tossing out big-money deals to outside free agents, Cincinnati puts a stronger effort into their scouting department and pro scouts in hopes of finding quality players in the latter rounds of the draft and expendable backups who can be acquired for bargain prices in free agency.
Unfortunately, those aforementioned big spending failures are the kinds of teams Cincinnati resembled in the 90s. That was a decade marred with bad drafts and the inability to hit on prospects in the latter rounds of drafts, especially on defense.
But since Marvin Lewis' arrival, the Bengals have put more emphasis and effort into the scouting department both on the college and pro level, which has helped them routinely land impact players for minimal compensation.
That's how the Bengals landed defensive end Wallace Gilberry in the 2012 season, not long after the Buccaneers had cut him. Though he'd struggled to make an impact through his first four seasons (14 total sacks), Cincinnati saw something in him and grabbed him after the regular season had begun.
In 14 games, Gilberry racked up 6.5 sacks before getting 7.5 the following season, all of which occurred in a situational role. He was just the latest in a line of expendable backups who joined the Bengals produced like quality starters.
It really began with Robert Geathers in 2004, as the fourth-round pick out of Georgia recorded 17 sacks over the next three seasons while starting just 17 games over that span. He too was a guy who thrived more as a situational backup than an actual starter.
Then came Jonathan Fanene the very next season. The seventh-round pick out of Utah went on to play in 64 games between 2007-2011 while being a key rotational lineman. He really came on late in his career when he racked up 12.5 sacks over his final three seasons and made a major impact for three units that finished with an average ranking of 8.7 in total defense.
Then in 2006, the Bengals landed Michigan State's Domata Peko in the fourth round, and he's gone to be one of the best defensive tackles in franchise history. He's played in all but five games since 2006, an unheard of level of durability for any lineman. He's also been part of a defense that finished with an average ranking of 10 from 2008-15.
Tim Krumrie is the only defensive tackle with more career tackles than Peko in franchise history, while only Dan Wilkinson and Krumrie are the only tackles with more career sacks than Peko.
After Peko, there are guys like Nedu Ndukwe (7th round, 2007), Clinton McDonald (7th round, 2009), Geno Atkins (4th round, 2010) and George Iloka (5th round, 2012) who've gone on to be impact players, and in the case of Atkins and Iloka, they've become stars you can build a defense around.
Then, there are guys who were signed off the street for minimal deals over that span who went on to become prominent members of the Bengals' defense. Credit the pro scouting department for helping the Bengals sign value free agents like Chris Crocker, Shaun Smith, Cedric Benson, Dhani Jones, Adam Jones, Thomas Howard, Nate Clements and Terence Newman to help build some of the great defenses Cincinnati has recently produced.
You can also credit the scouting department for not just the late-round draft picks, but also finding guys like Vontaze Burfict, Vincent Rey and Emmanuel Lamur after the draft ended.
Now it must be pointed out that being able to get such great production from cheap backups and late-round picks requires some star power, which the Bengals have in guys like Atkins, Burfict, and Reggie Nelson. You know what they've done in becoming stars who were among the best at their respective positions this past season, and that kind of star power is a must for any defense to be great.
But then you remember Cincinnati needed only a fourth-round pick (Atkins), an undrafted free agent contract (Burfict) and a reserve corner (Nelson trade) to land those three. Of the Bengals' defensive starters this past season, the Bengals needed only two fourth-round picks (Peko and Atkins), a fifth-rounder (Iloka), a fringe backup (Nelson trade), three undrafted free agent contracts (Burfict, Rey and Lamur) and a small free agent deal (Jones), and you'll see that you don't need big-money free agents and top-10 picks to build a good defense.
We may to see some new value free agents and late-round picks step into big roles on the defense next season. Guys like Derron Smith (6th round, 2015) and Josh Shaw (4th round, 2015) may become starters in 2016 if guys like Jones, Iloka and Nelson leave in free agency, and, if that happens, the cycle will take on a new life.