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Bengals 21st Century Draft Class Tournament: Finals - #1 (2001) vs #2 (2011)

The first Bengals’ draft class tournament enters the championship matchup, leaving busted brackets and defeated draft classes in its wake. Who will emerge as Bengals’ best draft class of the past 16 years?

When the brackets for our 21st Century Bengals Draft Class Tournament were first announced several weeks ago, there was much speculation that Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap would lead their fourth seeded 2010 draft class over the top seeded group from 2001. But the top seed held on for a 69% to 31% victory in the last semi-final matchup. In the quarter-finals, the top seed fought off Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard's class for a tough 72% to 28% victory. If anything, the top seed enters the finals battle tested.

Meanwhile, the 2011 draft class had the easiest route to the finals, as far as seeding goes. They destroyed Keith Rivers’ #15 seeded class 99% to 1% in the first round. In the second round, then bounced the #10 seed 97% to 3%, after Darqueze Dennard and Jeremy Hill pulled off a #10 vs #7 upset. Then in the semi-finals, they won 80% to 20% over the #6 seed of Dre Kirkpatrick and Kevin Zeitler, who had pulled off an upset over the #3 seeded group of Whitworth and Jonathan Joseph.

Both draft classes had high picks (#4 overall), and both were very successful. Below is why these two draft classes, brought into the NFL 10 years apart, deserve your vote in the finals to be named the best Bengals draft class of the 21st century.

#1 2001 Draft Class

Peter Warrick, Akili Smith, Reinard Wilson, and Ki-Jana Carter were the Bengals typical first round picks in the years heading up to the 2001 draft. Thanks to a 4-12 season, the Bengals held the #4 overall pick in the 2001.

While the 2001 draft class didn’t immediately turn around the Bengals’ franchise, it created the groundwork for a resurrection of a team left for dead by the rest of the league. In the three seasons before the 2001 draft, the Bengals went 11-37. A couple years later, when the 2001 draft class was making its mark on the team, the Bengals went 27-21 over a three year span, including their first playoff appearance in over a decade.

Justin Smith, DE (Round 1, #4)

Because the 49ers had some very good teams while Smith was there, he received most of his national accolades as a 49er, but he had some very good years in Cincinnati. Half of his career 87 sacks came as a Bengal, as did a majority of his tackles. He was an All Pro selection, and a five time Pro Bowl selection.

Chad Johnson, WR (Round 2, #36)

Chad Johnson (Ochocinco) ended his career with the most receptions (751), most receiving yards (10,783) and most receiving touchdowns (66) in Bengals’ history. His franchise best marks in receptions and yards are well ahead of the second best marks in each category. He also has six Pro-Bowl appearances, and two First Team All Pro selections to his credit.

Rudi Johnson, RB (Round 4, #100)

Johnson finished his career third all-time in Bengals’ rushing yards (5,742), and second in rushing touchdowns (48). He also holds the team’s second best mark of 19 games with at least 100 rushing yards, and in 2004 and 2005 he set the team records with most rushing yards in a season with 1,454 and 1,458 rushing yards.

T.J. Houshmandzadeh, WR (Round 7, #204)

Besides holding the distinction of having one of the more interesting last names in the NFL, Houshmandzadeh was more importantly, the best seventh round pick since the Bengals selected since drafting right tackle Joe Walter out of North Carolina Central back in 1985. He compiled over 7,000 receiving yards and grabbed 44 touchdowns. Both of these totals topped the combined production of the top two receivers drafted in 2001.

#2 2011 Draft Class

The Bengals 2011 draft class has never had a losing season. They have reached the playoffs in all five seasons since being drafted. Those five consecutive appearances easily top the franchise’s former record of two straight appearances. The 2011 draft class also claims a 0.626 regular season winning percentage with a record of 52-27-1.

Keep in mind, this isn’t a case where the draftees just stumbled into a team that was already loaded for a playoff run. Rather, the 2011 class stepped into a Bengals’ clubhouse hindered by a CBA-shortened offseason, adjusting to a new offensive coordinator, had just lost their long-time quarterback, and were coming off a dismal 4-12 record the previous season.

A.J. Green, WR (Round 1, #4)

Green has made the Pro Bowl five times in five seasons. That’s very good. But when you average over 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns every season, it’s understandable. Green has set multiple NFL records for receiving production to start a career, and is on pace to pass Johnson as the top receiver in Bengals’ history. Green already has 11 more touchdowns, and 615 more yards while playing far less time and with many more years to go.

Andy Dalton, QB (Round 2, #35)

When a quarterback is selected in the NFL draft, who is not an "elite" first round pick, and is joining a team coming off a bad season, adding a new offense, and is given a very short offseason to prepare, expectations aren’t very high. Despite that, Dalton has risen to the challenge, and put together a very good five year career.

What do Bryce Petty, Jimmy Garoppolo, Ryan Nassib, Brock Osweiler, Mike Kafka, Stephen McGee, Kevin O’Connell, Drew Stanton, Tarvaris Jackson, Andrew Walter, Matt Schaub, and Dave Ragone all have in common? They were all the fifth quarterbacks drafted over the last dozen years or so in their draft classes. Other than Matt Schaub, Dalton has more yards and touchdowns than the rest of that group combined. He has 75 percent of the yards of Schaub in only half of the games, and more total touchdowns. In other words, Dalton has far exceeded expectations for a quarterback who is the fifth option in his draft class.

Clint Boling, OG (Round 4, #101)

Boling has become a solid four year starter at left guard for the Bengals. He seems to get better every season, and will likely continue to put together a good career on the Bengals’ offensive line.