After getting little production from their first-round picks of the last three years, the Bengals will have a great opportunity to boost their squad with an impact player via the ninth pick in this year’s NFL Draft. Can we trust Marvin Lewis and company to get it right?
Since that 2011 offseason that saw long-tenured quarterback-wide receiver duo, Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson leave, the Bengals have succeeded with a draft and develop philosophy that’d taken them to the playoffs for five consecutive years. The team has yet to get past the Wild Card game, but you can argue that Cincinnati has become one of the top teams in the NFL since that changing of guard in 2011.
The key of course has been good drafting, as the Bengals have restrained from the big-name free-agent market and the core of the roster has remained steady. However you can track back the team’s rebuilding efforts to the 2009 draft. The team, armed with 11 draft picks, found four starters and another role player, with second-round pick Rey Maualuga headlining the pack.
Cincinnati has often been a less than ideal place for first-round picks to establish themselves right away, either by design - Dre Kirkpatrick, or something else - Andre Smith. The team’s second rounders have interestingly been luckier during that period. Maualuga, for example, was an immediate starter, whereas Smith had to wait for his chance to shine. This is why it could be fun to compare both the success of the first-round picks and the second-round picks since that arbitrary 2009 draft to see if the latter have been more valuable to the team. We’ll go up to the 2014 draft, as it’s often said that you need at least three years to be able to evaluate the haul.
First round, 6 overall: Andre Smith, tackle.
Second round, 38 overall: Rey Maualuga, linebacker.
Per Pro-Football Reference, Maualuga has had the better career so far, with a 46 approximate value, for Smith’s 38. Both were valuable for a while, but the offensive lineman started slowly with contract issues and injuries during his first couple of years in the league, before breaking out in 2011. The USC product was a regular right away, but since 2012 his role has diminished as the game has moved from the base formations and he’s always been pretty ineffective in coverage.
The Bengala let Smith walk in free agency and lost the reliability (and inconsistency) he brought to the table. Maualuga remains on team but was finally replaced in the starting lineup last season as his play declined.
Edge: This one is tough, as both have their fair share of flaws. Smith is the better player and gave the Bengals the better contribution, but Maualuga contributed for longer. I’d go with a tie.
First round, 21 overall: Jermaine Gresham, tight end.
Second round, 54 overall: Carlos Dunlap, defensive end.
I don’t need Pro-Football Reference to tell me who’s been better for the Bengals. Dunlap has taken the league by a storm and has become the all-time sack leader for the franchise, while Gresham never capitalized on his incredible athleticism and will always be remembered for his costly mistakes rather than his contributions. Anyway, Dunlap has an AV of 46 and Gresham of 26, but it shouldn’t even be that close.
Edge: one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, Dunlap has given his team steady production over the years and his name will forever be in the Bengals’ record books. Gresham looked for shelter under Palmer’s wing in Arizona after wearing out his welcome (and rookie deal) in Paul Brown Stadium.
Choice: Second round.
First round, 4 overall: A.J. Green, wide receiver.
Second round, 35 overall: Andy Dalton, quarterback.
What a combo! Green quickly became one of the most terrorizing weapons in the game while Dalton surprisingly helped the team turn around after Palmer’s departure. The Georgia star is in the conversation for the best receiver in the NFL and figures to go down in history as one of the best Bengals ever. Dalton had a tremendous season in 2015 before suffering a freak injury, but he’s not in the elite category among his position, unlike Green. NFL teams are lucky to grab a combination like this with their first and second round picks and both have been granted long-term contract extensions in Cincinnati.
Edge: Dalton plays the most important position and has helped stabilize the Bengals, but Green is just a generational talent and a joy to watch day in day out. For the record, Dalton’s AV is 64 and Green’s is 56.
Choice: First round.
First round, 17 overall: Dre Kirkpatrick, cornerback.
First round, 27 overall: Kevin Zeitler, guard.
Second round, 53 overall: Devon Still, defensive tackle.
The soon-to be free agent Zeitler has become one of the best linemen in the NFL and started since day one. Kirkpatrick, also set to hit the market, was buried in the rotation for a few years before eventually getting his chance. After a mixed bag of performances, he established himself as the team’s top corner in 2016.
Still was a great idea when drafted because he could have given the Bengals another inside rusher to team up with Geno Atkins. Unfortunately, he didn't impress much in his first few years and then, his world came crashing down when his daughter was diagnosed with cancer. Still took some time away from football before trying to make a comeback in 2016. But, he was injured early on this season and the Texans placed him on Injured Reserve. He’ll be a free agent in March.
PS: Thanks for the extra first round pick, Oakland.
Edge: Zeitler has helped anchor one of the best offensive lines of the last few years and is on many team’s shopping list this spring. Pro-Football Reference agrees as he has a 29 AV, compared to Kirkpatrick’s 18 and Still’s 3.
Choice: First round.
First round, 21 overall: Tyler Eifert, tight end.
Second round, 37 overall: Giovani Bernard, running back.
Second round, 53 overall: Margus Hunt, defensive end (really kick blocker).
Eifert, the Notre Dame star, was amazing in 2015 for the Bengals, and again shined in limited action last season. He’s a mismatch for any defense and a great weapon for any offense. He improved his blocking a little bit in 2016 too. The problem is, he’s missed 27 games in four seasons. Imagine if he could just stay healthy?
Bernard is fantastic and a threat anytime he gets the ball, either out of the backfield or as a receiver. He’s also a good blocker and makes his line better too, as Jeremy Hill proved this year.
I don’t need to talk much about Hunt, the biggest bust on this list. He was drafted as a project and remains one as his claim to fame has been blocked kicks, not rushing the passer:
PS: Thanks again for the extra pick, Oakland.
Edge: I am going with Bernard. Eifert could give him a run for his money as talented as he is, but he needs to stay healthy in order to do so. In case you’re wondering, Bernard’s AV is 29 - same as Zeitler, Eifert has a 12 and Hunt a 4.
Choice: Second round.
First round, 24 overall: Darqueze Dennard, cornerback.
Second round, 55 overall: Jeremy Hill, running back.
We still don’t know what to make of Dennard. Drafted to eventually replace Leon Hall, he’s never looked good in the slot and has been often injured while also buried on the depth chart. It’s still early to call him bust, the Bengals need to give him a fair chance to succeed first. It’s clear the slot isn’t his calling, but now we’ll need to wait and see if there’s an opportunity for him to play on the boundary, depending on if one or both of Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick are on the roster come Week 1 of the 2017 season.
Hill was amazing during his rookie season, carrying an offense without Marvin Jones Jr., Andrew Hawkins, Eifert and Green - for some games, on his back. Despite some fumbling issues, he clearly looked like the perfect complement for Bernard, in some sort of thunder and lightning combo. He didn’t look the same in 2015 but was still scoring tons of touchdowns, making him a valuable asset to a playoff team. Then, the Wild Card game against Pittsburgh sealed his fate with many Bengals fans as he fumbled away the ball with less than two minutes to play and the Bengals holding a slim lead. We all know how that ended. A very frustrating 2016 season has many believing he should be bumped down on the Bengals’ depth chart. Outplayed by Rex Burkhead down the stretch, Hill only impressed against the Browns, compiling putrid stats elsewhere.
Edge: Hill, easily. I mean, Dennard has barely played.
Choice: Second round.
The 2015 and 2016 drafts are up for consideration. 2015 first round pick Cedric Ogbuehi needs a lot of improvement but second rounder Jake Fisher hasn’t been much to write home about either. 2016 second round pick Tyler Boyd was a nice role player for the Bengals offense this past season, but first round pick William Jackson III was among the best cornerbacks in his draft and could become a regular soon. He unfortunately lost his entire rookie year due to a pectoral injury.
It is a tough debate, considering a generational talent like Green drafted in the first round and a couple of failed picks in the second like Hunt and Still. Nonetheless, Cincinnati has more often than not found solid contributors on Day 2, and some of them like Dunlap, Bernard and Dalton are a huge part of the team’s core.
Per my evaluation, the second round picks since 2009 have been slightly more successful than the Bengals’ first round picks. But, for the most part, especially when not considering the last two draft classes, the first round picks have worked out well (for the most part), too.