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Bengals need to stop taking on project players

The Bengals’ track record of drafting and succeeding with “projects” seems to demand that they avoid such a strategy going forward.

Cincinnati Bengals v New York Jets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

There are many different schools of thought when it comes to deciding who to draft. One draft strategy is to select the “best player available”, which means you select the person you have rated as the highest prospect available, regardless of how well it aligns with your current needs. An opposing strategy is to select a player based on “need”, which means you limit your selections to players who best match your current needs. But even when deciding which of these paths to take, there is still the need to determine who to select. The ideal choice is a great human being (no red flags) with great athletic upside (high ceiling) and a great track record of production (high floor). Unfortunately this perfect combination doesn’t always exist, and teams are forced to decide how to balance the different variables.

When a team is left trying to decide who to draft, one option is taking on what is known as a “project”. This is a player who may not have a great track record of success on-the-field, but has some specific attribute, or sets of attributes that a team thinks they can use to mold the prospect into a great player. The most common type of “project” that teams pursue is a player with great athletic traits, but little experience or success using these traits to play well.

Going back to the first draft with Marvin Lewis as the Bengals’ head coach in 2003, the team has dabbled with a few “project” players. Unfortunately it seems that every time they opt to go this route with a selection, it flops as a wasted choice.

Bengals “projects” who played little or no football at a high level before being drafted by the Bengals:

  • Bennie Brazell, WR (2006 round 7)
  • Jerome Simpson, WR (2008 round 2)
  • Margus Hunt, DE (2013 round 2)

Hunt was a converted Estonian shot put champion who started playing football when SMU dropped their track program. Running a 4.60 40-yard dash, while standing 6’8” and weighing 277 pounds, Hunt jumped off the charts, as did his 38 repetitions of the 225 pound bench press. While size and speed are huge, they are not the only factors in making one an NFL caliber player, and Hunt has never emerged past the ranks of a deep backup for the Bengals.

Brazell ran track for LSU and was a finalist in the 400 meter hurdles for the 2004 Olympics. He was an woefully underutilized member of the Tigers’ football team while at LSU. The Bengals drafted him with the intention of teaching him how to play football at an NFL level. Needless to say, it wasn’t as easy to teach as they may have hoped.

Two years after the failed Bennie Brazell experiment, the Bengals again gave it another try with Jerome Simpson. This time, they chose somebody who had more experience playing football, although at the Division 1 FCS level. Simpson was very athletic but very raw with the requisite skills necessary to play wide receiver. Simpson became an adequate NFL receiver, but not worth the high second round pick used on him.

Bengals “projects” who the Bengals attempted to use at different positions or in different roles:

  • Reggie McNeal, QB (2006 round 6)
  • Jason Shirley, DT (2008 round 5)
  • Chase Coffman, TE (2009 round 3)
  • Orson Charles, TE (2012 round 4)

Standing at 6’2” and 250 pounds, Charles was a bit undersized to be an in-line tight end, but had good enough hands to tantalize the team with the potential as one who could play fullback, and catch the ball out of the backfield from that position. Unfortunately the blocking part of the fullback position never clicked with Charles, whose Bengals’ career ended with nine receptions.

Coffman was a prolific tight end at Missouri, hauling in 247 balls for 2,659 yards and 30 touchdowns. He was a receiving tight end, and not a blocker. Almost immediately after drafting him, the Bengals began to convert him to an in-line tight end. The conversion never took off, and he caught all of three passes in his Bengals’ career.

Big 330 pound Shirley was drafted by a team who didn’t have a roster spot for a defensive tackle, so they moved him to offensive line. How well did that work out? He played all of three games for the Bengals.

Bengals “projects” who struggled in college, but showed the Bengals enough to make the team think they would somehow become good at the NFL level:

  • Russell Bodine, C (2014 round 4)
  • Cedric Ogbuehi, OT (2015 round 1)

Ogbuehi played right guard and right tackle before finally moving to the coveted left tackle position during his final season at Texas A&M. When he finally got a shot at left tackle, he allowed seven sacks and was demoted for a couple games back to the right tackle position. Despite his struggles in college with production and technique, and lack of core strength, he is a good athlete with quick feet and long arms. He looks the part of a Pro Bowl tackle, but just doesn’t play like one. After two seasons with the Bengals, he has yet to show any real promise or hope that he can be starter or worthy of a first round draft pick.

During his time with the Tar Heels, Bodine was a short-armed blocker who typically spent his time being pushed into the backfield. His 3-cone time of 8.29 seconds was the slowest of any lineman at the 2014 combine. Despite all of this working against him, the one thing he had in his favor was a whopping 42 repetitions of bench pressing 225 pounds. That was enough for the Bengals to trade up to draft him and use him as their starting center ever since. He doesn’t deserve to keep that role and needs competition badly to push him out of it.

So, what do all of these projects have in common? So far, none of them have worked out incredibly well. And, when they showed slight signs of hope, it still wasn’t worth their draft billing and where the Bengals selected them. In 2017, the Bengals can’t afford to take on any more projects. The team should be in win-now, get better now mode and that means the team can’t afford the luxury of taking on any more unproven, project players any time soon.