While Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis deserves his fair share of criticism for the team's lack of success in primetime and in the playoffs, his rebuilding of the roster during his 13-going-on-14-year tenure is worthy of respect. While major roster turnover isn't common under Lewis, the couple of times it has occurred have marked pivotal epochs in Bengals history.
We're looking at the players who've had the biggest impacts in Lewis' roster reconstructions, but there are a couple of footnotes to heed. The most important is obviously the impact a player has had in a particularly pivotal transitional year. And, while we tend to favor those who Lewis brought in himself, we do look at other players who made huge developmental leaps in the his early years to propel the team.
Carson Palmer: Though he isn't the most popular player in the eyes of the fans, Bengaldom can't deny his overall impact in raising them out of the ashes of the previous decade. After a carousel of signal-callers in the 12 playoff-less years before his arrival, Palmer took Cincinnati to two division titles in five years, which seems paltry to what has transpired since 2011, but he spurred a major revival in The Queen City.
Andy Dalton: The former TCU scrapper has taken his lumps from fans, but he just continues to win. He doesn't have the physical tools that Palmer has, but he doesn't know anything else but the NFL playoffs and re-writing the franchise record books.
Honorable Mention, Jon Kitna: While the "sit-and-let-them-develop" patience from coaching regimes isn't readily practiced these days, Lewis was a bit of a trailblazer in doing so in his inaugural season as a head coach. Kitna won Comeback Player of the Year for his stellar 2003 season, in which he almost led the Bengals to a playoff berth that season. His reward? A backup role to Palmer in 2004.
Cedric Benson: Mike Brown and Co. love reclamation projects and Benson may have been the poster boy for the rare long-term success in the endeavor. He joined the club midway through the 2008 season, but it was on his back that the Bengals rode to two playoff berths in 2009 and 2011. In four years with the Bengals, Benson ran for 4,176 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Rudi Johnson: Sure, he wasn't drafted by Lewis, but his surge from 2003-2006 was a major catalyst to an offensive juggernaut in that span. While he was with the Bengals for seven years, Johnson only started significant games in five seasons, while racking up 5,979 yards and 48 touchdowns, making Corey Dillon expendable.
Honorable Mention, Giovani Bernard: While he hasn't had the prominent role of 1980s Bengals stalwart James Brooks, he has a very similar skill set. Bernard has battled injuries, but he is a multi-dimensional weapon who has helped the team over the course of the past three years. With 17 total touchdowns (12 rushing, seven receiving), and nearly 4,000 total yards from scrimmage, he's been a complete weapon.
Chad Johnson: Though he had 1,166 yards in 2002, Johnson didn't truly break out in the NFL until Lewis arrived in Cincinnati. After famously approaching the then-new head coach with a plea to become the next Jerry Rice, Johnson was a force for the better part of the next seven years. He re-wrote the Bengals' career receiving record books for yards, receptions and touchdowns, while creating an "Ochocinco" marketing machine. Like Rudi before him, Johnson wasn't a Lewis draft pick, but saw his gigantic blossoming under his watch.
A.J. Green: It's so funny how Johnson's heir apparent is so different in multiple facets than eighty-five. If he stays healthy and remains productive throughout the rest of his current contract, Green should break most, if not all of Johnson's records.
Honorable Mention, T.J. Houshmandzadeh: Again, "Housh" is another guy who wasn't selected during the Lewis regime, but his growth as a pro began in 2004 and continued through 2008 with the Bengals. He ranks third in club history with 507 catches and was one of the players who revolutionized the modern day slot receiver role.
Honorable Mention, Chris Henry: Sure, this may be sappy at first blush, but Henry outranks both Mohamed Sanu and Marvin both career yards and touchdowns in team history. Some believe he was the most physically talented of any of the Bengals' modern day receivers, but a load of talent in front of him and his own demons held him back.
Reggie Kelly: He frustrated fans at times because of his lack of being a true receiving threat, but his blocking prowess and leadership qualities made him one of the best free agent acquisitions in his tenure. Aside from being a team chaplain, Kelly was a workmanlike blocker while being a security blanket to Palmer.
Jermaine Gresham: Some fans will be up in arms about Gresham being a "starter" on this list over Tyler Eifert, but longevity, more consistent performances as a blocker and his nine additional receiving touchdowns as a Bengal give him the nod in a position that has often been overlooked by coaches in Lewis' tenure.
Honorable Mention, Tyler Eifert: Honestly, this comes down to staying healthy and showing consistency. Eifert had an insane 2015 campaign with 13 touchdown catches in as many games, but his issue is getting on the field and grabbing playing time. The expectation is that he'll be one of the better tight ends in team history, should he prove that last year wasn't a fluke.
Andrew Whitworth: Do we need to say much here? After taking a backseat to Levi Jones and Willie Anderson early in his career, the former second round pick has become a locker room captain and a staple on the line. He's entering the twilight of his career, but he was a catalyst to helping the team's run of six playoff berths in seven years after the departures of Jones and Anderson.
Willie Anderson: In Lewis' early years, he relied on the mammoth right tackle as one of the few veteran building blocks to right the ship. He made four Pro Bowls and was a three-time All-Pro from 2003-2006 and goes down as one of the team's best offensive linemen ever.
Honorable Mention, Levi Jones: After seeming like a reach by the club with a No. 10 overall selection in 2001, Jones came into his own in the mid-2000s and protected Palmer's blind side at a very high level.
Eric Steinbach: Lewis' first draft class had some good selections, with second rounder Eric Steinbach being another aspect of a dominant offensive line. Though he was with the Bengals for only four seasons, he remains one of the best players at the position in Lewis' tenure, as both an athletic pass blocker and paving the way for Rudi Johnson's big rushing seasons.
Bobbie Williams: The big guy was underrated in all circles outside of Cincinnati, but he was a road grader of a guard for the Bengals from 2004-2011. Williams was one of Lewis' best free agency acquisitions in a period filled with busts and inactivity, and his leadership bridged three separate rebuilding projects that culminated in as many playoff berths in 2005, 2009 and 2011.
Honorable Mention, Kevin Zeitler: Once Williams began to break down in 2011 and the team had issues at the position with players like Mike McGlynn, it was time to bring in a long-term solution. Since 2012, Zeitler has manned the right side of the line with mostly high-quality results.
Rich Braham: Though he was a mainstay on the line far before Lewis' arrival, Braham was part of a line that became one of the league's best from 2003-2006. Unfortunately, Braham was forced to retire after sustaining a knee injury early in 2006, but he was a reliable veteran for Lewis to lean on in those first few years.
Honorable Mention, Kyle Cook: The big mauler spent seven seasons with the Bengals and anchored the interior of the line for multiple playoff campaigns over two rebuilding efforts (2009, 2011-2013).
Justin Smith: Though he saw more accolades once he left Cincinnati, Smith was one of the lone defensive stars on those early offensive-driven Marvin Lewis squads. He racked up 28.5 sacks for Lewis from 2003-2007, while starting every game in the span.
Carlos Dunlap: He had his best pro season in 2015, and has 49 career sacks in six years as a Bengal. Though not viewed as a truly dominant pass-rusher (even though he had 13.5 sacks last year), he is a solid all-around defender and one of the better draft picks in the Lewis era.
Honorable Mention, Robert Geathers: Sometimes a player's biggest contributions to a team isn't on the stat sheet. Geathers played 11 years and 152 games for the Bengals, while racking up 34 sacks, Geathers was a professional in so many ways. His leadership in the locker room helped Lewis maintain a semblance of control throughout other players' off-field issues and multiple roster rebuilds.
Geno Atkins: If Green is on pace for a Hall of Fame career, then so too is Atkins on the other side of the ball. The last two rebuilding projects overseen by Lewis have been marked with defensive dominance and no Bengals player has been as dominant as Atkings on defense in the team's recent history. He has been the key to what the team does on defense since he stepped into a starting role in 2011.
Domata Peko: Like Geathers, Peko has fallen out of favor with Bengals fans as his career is winding down, but he's been a productive player and team captain for a long time. Peko is entering his 11th season with the Bengals, missing just five games in his career and getting 18.5 sacks to his name.
Honorable Mention, John Thornton: One of Lewis' first free agent acquisitions, Thornton had a productive six years with the Bengals. He had 17 sacks and played both tackle spots for Lewis.
Brian Simmons: Missing just six games in four years for Lewis, Simmons was one another veteran the then-new coach used as a crutch. Simmons had 350 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 8 forced fumbles from 2003-2006.
Dhani Jones: He became a fan favorite because of his affable personality and interesting off-field lifestyle, but Jones was a key to the team's 2009 revival. He spearheaded the resurgent defense with heady play, but also came in off the street and became productive when linebackers were dropping like flies in 2007.
Rey Maualuga: While he may never have lived up to the potential he showed at USC, Maualuga has had a productive career with the Bengals. He has been a physical player who has continued to improve in recent years, while also being one of the centerpieces of six playoff teams.
Honorable Mention, Vontaze Burfict: Though he could very well end up being one of the best linebackers in recent memory, injuries and erratic behavior knock him down a few pegs. There is plenty of time for Burfict to change those issues, but even so, he has been a monster producer when on the field.
Leon Hall: Nine seasons, 26 interceptions and two admirable recoveries from Achilles injuries make Hall one of Lewis' iron men. Though his journey with Cincinnati may be over and his play dropped over the past couple of seasons, Hall was a steady presence through a couple of different roster formations.
Adam Jones: Like Benson, Jones is one of those reclamation stories with a happy ending. Like a fine wine, Jones has gotten better with age, and has been the team's best corner the past three seasons. It also doesn't hurt that he helps in big ways in the return game.
Honorable Mention, Tory James: Another early and important free agent acquisition in Lewis' rookie season as head coach, James was turnover machine. Those plays were crucial to setting up the exciting offense in scoring position with frequency. He nabbed 21 interceptions and 198 tackles in his four seasons with the Bengals.
Reggie Nelson: Lewis conducted one of the best trades in team history when he landed Nelson right before the 2010 season. Though he moved on to Oakland this offseason, Nelson had his most productive year as a pro in 2015 which culminated in a Pro Bowl berth. In six seasons with the Bengals, Nelson had 23 interceptions and 62 passes defended.
Madieu Williams: Though he bolted for Minnesota after his rookie contract expired and missed the majority of his second season from injury, Williams was another productive player in the secondary in Lewis' early years. He had nine interceptions and 34 passes defended in his four seasons with the Bengals.
Honorable Mentions, George Iloka and Chinedum Ndukwe: Iloka's career is blossoming and with a big new contract to his name, he has the chance to prove even more than he already has. Ndukwe wasn't the most talented safety, but he was a hustler and solid band-aid for four years.
Kevin Huber: There isn't much discussion here. Huber has been a weapon and a special teams star for six Bengals teams that made the playoffs.
Shayne Graham: Though he fell out of fans' favor, Graham was a steadying presence while Lewis attempted to get all three phases of the game solidified. Graham had a 86.8 percent conversion rate on field goals through seven seasons with the Bengals and helped the team make two playoff appearances.