Remember the old NFL Films videos, with John Facenda's recognizable voice and Sam Spence's compositions? The videos featured running backs taking shots from linebackers, or safeties, had simplistic titles like "Greatest Hits of all-time", or "Greatest Hits of the 80s" or "Greatest Hits since Lunch." This was a time when the league had grown into its teenage years, discovering itself (as rebellious teenagers do) and leading into a revolution that brought the focus, and financial glory, to quarterbacks.
It's a passing league.
To younger fans, this is all they've known. To older fans, we witnessed the transition while the retired community proudly boasts about a time when the league was "tough" (as if it's not tough anymore?). Quarterbacks have their own brand of value - guys like Jared Goff and Carson Wentz were selected first and second overall because everyone is looking for a franchise guy, spending a fortune in draft picks to place themselves into position to get "their guy."
It's a passing league and the AFC North has shown that, led by two quarterbacks with three Super Bowl Championships, a Super Bowl MVP, and multiple Pro Bowls, while Cincinnati's schedule includes games against the Cowboys, Patriots and Giants where the quarterbacks they face are accomplished and the receivers are lethal.
Selecting Houston cornerback Will Jackson III resembles the prioritization to strengthen the team's passing defense. In today's game with these athletes, teams undertake an endless task of securing productive secondaries, with a significant pass rush, as opposed to bulking Dick Butkus types, who charge through the line of scrimmage to stick workhorse running backs.
Head coach Marvin Lewis recognized this early, contributing within a war room that's drafted five cornerbacks since 2006; Johnathan Joseph (2006), Leon Hall (2007), Dre Kirkpatrick (2012), Darqueze Dennard (2014), William Jackson III (2016).
There are other elements in play. Cincinnati continues to draft based on needs that expand beyond this year. For example, Kirkpatrick is entering his fifth and final season under contract; currently playing on a $7 million salary under a fifth-year option that was triggered in April 2015. Kirkpatrick tends to show flashes of genius, but his aggressiveness has also led to busted coverages. Dennard, for one reason or another (mostly injury), struggles to get on the field. We're still wondering where Josh Shaw fits in beyond special teams.
Regardless, while depth is encouraging, don't expect Jackson to become a significant contributor on defense early. Like those that came before him, he'll have a significant contribution on special teams.
"Just like any young player, whether we draft a linebacker or safety or corner, their first role is going to be a backup player until they learn our system," Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said after the team drafted Jackson Thursday night.
"They have to have a role on special teams. And obviously with this guy's speed, he's going to add some value to special teams right away, of course. But as things go on, he's going to have to learn that he's going to have to earn his way here, just like everybody else does as young players. Time will tell as we go on through this thing, and hopefully the competition in the (defensive back) room and that's always a good thing."
Cincinnati has drafted with next year in mind. Jermaine Gresham continued frustrating coaches and with an expiring contract looming, the team selected tight end Tyler Eifert. Dennard and Cedric Ogbuehi were also selections that addressed concerns, not for the year they were drafted, but within the next two seasons. By the time these players are needed, they've developed under the system, and are more than capable of jumping into the fire with confidence from the coaches, their teammates and from within themselves.
Jackson will follow a similar path, hopefully with stronger results than those that preceded him, carrying a tradition to strengthen their secondary against a passing threat that permeates the entire league.