While many fans are already wondering who the Bengals will pick with the ninth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, what we want to see is an immediate difference maker who can play from day 1. That hasn’t been the case of late with the Bengals’ Draft picks and it certainly hurt the team in 2016.
We can single out the 2011 Draft as the one that clearly changed the landscape for the Bengals, but prior to that, many of the current key contributors to this team were added from 2006 and on. Andrew Whitworth, Domata Peko, Rey Maualuga and even Kevin Huber were added before the Andy Dalton-A.J. Green era began. Some drafts during the early Marvin Lewis years were mostly bad, like the 2007 one when the only player of note who was drafted that year was Leon Hall. But overall, the Bengals have been fortunate with a fair number of their Draft selections in the first decade of the 21st century, which allowed them to stick with their philosophy of staying away from outside free agency and still be competitive. Since 2014, the trend of immediate impact Draft classes has taken a back seat as few draft picks have made a major difference since joining the Bengals.
Cincinnati took a step back last year, with a 6-9-1 finish that marks their lowest win total since the 2010 debacle season, the only time that the Bengals missed the playoffs since 2009. Despite being very unlucky in close games and having to deal with a lot of issues in the kicking game, this year’s roster was more thin on talent than the 2014 team. That year, the Bengals lost Michael Johnson, Andrew Hawkins and Anthony Collins in free agency and Vontaze Burfict, Marvin Jones Jr. and Tyler Eifert to injuries. This time they saw Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Andre Smith leave while also dealing with injuries to Eifert, Green, Giovani Bernard, Burfict and more.
This year, the Bengals didn’t have much of a plan B because there weren’t many guys ready to step up from the bench, and a big part of that is because the Bengals just haven’t drafted as well as in year’s past, since 2014. For a team that doesn’t participate in free agency, the Bengals put all their eggs in one basket, and when that doesn’t work, it’s hard to keep up a high level of performances, like we’d grown used to.
2014 Draft Class
Starters in 2016: Hill (13 starts), Bodine (16 starts)
2015 Draft class
Starters in 2016: Ogbuehi (12 starts), Fisher (3 starts), Shaw (12 starts), Uzomah (8 starts), Kroft (11 starts)
2016 Draft class
William Jackson III
Starters in 2016: Boyd (2 starts)
Of course it’s still early, but there are few impact player among those three draft classes and few reliable long-term starters. Some of the players that do play, are often below average talents, like center Bodine, selected in the fourth round in 2014. Hill had a great rookie season and has been the starter at running back when healthy since, but, he’s far from the player the Bengals and their fans want him to be. There’s still time for these draft classes; both Rex Burkhead and Shawn Williams broke through last season or late in 2015 and were drafted in 2013. While the former is expected to cash in after a very nice finish, the latter is a lock at strong safety and for years to come in Cincinnati.
But, again, the Bengals haven’t been able to get many impact players from the past three drafts and that has really hurt them. The team has finally seemed to notice because Director of Player Personnel, Duke Tobin, said they were looking to add immediate contributors early in the upcoming draft. In 2013 they got Eifert and Bernard, in 2012 it was Kevin Zeitler - Dre Kirkpatrick didn’t start playing until fairly recently, and in 2011 they added Green, Dalton, and Clint Boling, who won the starting job in his sophomore season. In 2010 it was Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins and you can even include Jermaine Gresham, who somehow got selected to the Pro Bowl twice in his five years in Cincinnati.
Now, the 2016 draft could look like a nice haul in the long-term if Jackson III and Billings both develop into franchise cornerstones, and Boyd is already a valuable role player. But, the Bengals need more from their draft picks than that if their only source of improvement is the draft. Not going after free agents can possibly save you from one or two bad deals, like the one Johnson got from Tampa Bay, but also reduces the chances of finding help for your roster.
Margus Hunt’s selection looked bad in 2013 and it looks bad now in retrospective, but the Bengals still nailed their first two selections (Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard) in that Draft class. From 2014 Cincinnati has netted, via the Draft, 5.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 4 receiving touchdowns and 29 rushing touchdowns. This last number looks impressive until you realize how bad Jeremy Hill has been in every aspect of the game other than scoring since his rookie year. The Bengals also brought in a capable backup quarterback in that Draft in McCarron, but he’s a backup quarterback and doesn’t appear to have a future in Cincinnati.
The team has worked the edges with some success, like drafting Josh Shaw in the fourth round and Derron Smith in the sixth in 2015, but for a team hungry for upgrades after losing so many valuable guys in the past offseason, the players behind those lost players just weren’t good enough, and that is the main reason why the Bengals went 6-9-1 in 2016. In 2015, the team’s draft selections focused on the future, with the first and second round picks being spent on tackles who would possibly replace Whitworth and Smith. It’s still early, but it’s fair to say Cincinnati needs to resign the veteran left tackle because a contending team can’t rely on Ogbuehi and Fisher both playing on their line.
When the roster was loaded with talent, the luxury picks looked almost fine - except for Hunt. Will Clarke is the most clear example of this. Now that the team doesn’t have as much firepower as before, one has to wonder why they added Clake, another defensive end with minimal pass rush skills but great size.
It’s fine to say the Bengals are a draft and develop team. It’s fine that they value compensatory picks highly. But relying only on the Draft means the Bengals are much more susceptible to regressing if they don’t add talent that can make an impact early and often. Unfortunately, due to a number of reasons, the Bengals’ Draft classes since 2014 just haven’t made a major impact.