Given the lack of the Bengals’ postseason success before and during the Marvin Lewis era, it’s easy for us outsiders to question how the team conducts its business. Cincinnati doesn’t have a designated general manager outside of owner Mike Brown, the team has one of the smallest scouting departments in the league and has the reputation of being on the frugal side when it comes to paying players, whether or not that’s true.
Because of all of this, one could deem the Bengals’ six postseason appearances since 2009 a near-miracle.
Another frustrating Bengals strategy that has been coming to the forefront of scrutiny is gathering compensatory draft picks. Whether it’s their allowance of letting their own valuable veterans walk in free agency, or the team’s lack of signing high-priced outside talent, the club likes to roll the dice on less expensive options in favor of more selections in the draft.
In letting the likes of Reggie Nelson, Mohamed Sanu, Andre Smith, Emmanuel Lamur and Marvin Jones walk in free agency, the team received four compensatory picks in the 2017 NFL Draft. Are those picks in rounds four through seven on unknown quantities a surer bet than keeping together a solid core of veterans already comfortable in the team’s system?
Lost veterans and the 6-9-1 season:
Most of the players lost in the 2016 offseason were on offense and the vacancies were noticeable. Smith had his ups and downs with the Bengals, but from 2012-2015, Smith was an above-average starter at right tackle. Cedric Ogbuehi struggled mightily at the position in 2016 and the line as a whole underachieved.
However, protection wasn’t the only issue in the passing game. Missing A.J. Green with a hamstring injury for essentially seven games didn’t help matters, but even with a 4,000-yard passing season, Andy Dalton just wasn’t as comfortable with the new faces in the receiving corps. The losses of Sanu and Jones, even if it didn’t make total financial sense for new contracts, definitely hurt the team as the missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Though their recent draft-and-develop strategy has had its failures, there’s no doubt that a big key to their mini-empire has been in the draft. While that plays into the compensatory pick formula, championship teams keep the right players to keep continuity.
Do other championship franchises operate this way?:
While the hard-working Bengals beat writers have recently come to the defense of the Bengals and their accumulation of these extra picks, one is hard-pressed to find other championship squads use this frugal approach. We mentioned the Packers and their similarities to the Bengals, but they still add big names here and there (Julius Peppers, for example), and they maneuver their way to higher picks more often than Cincinnati.
New England is another example fans could point to because of their annual collection of picks. However, they usually use those to move up in the draft and/or work lucrative trades. Furthermore, when you look at their outside additions in free agency, players like Chris Long, Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan and Jabaal Sheard have been inked.
There are many other NFL powerhouses that just don’t hang their hat on compensatory picks and sitting on their hands in free agency the way the Bengals seem to. This isn’t a call to action for Cincinnati to sign multiple high-priced outside free agents in a couple of weeks, but there is a balance of all facets that creates championship contenders.
With their relative inactivity over the past couple of offseasons, one has to wonder if the team was merely treading water, in terms of roster talent. If there isn’t going to be any coaching changes to spur another postseason berth, shouldn’t they be asking themselves how they are getting better in the spring months?
How valuable are the mid and late-round picks?:
We can point to many players the Bengals have chosen in the later rounds that panned out, but most franchises strike gold in the late rounds from time-to-time. When you have known quantities you’ve readily developed for nearly half a decade, doesn’t it reek of arrogance to believe that plug-and-replacing without missing a beat will occur?
We don’t want to say that the poor 2016 season is solely due to the on the losses in free agency, but there is something to be said about “keeping the gang together”. The Green Bay Packers’ front office operates similarly to the Bengals’ brain trust, but they have done a good job of keeping viable weapons around Aaron Rodgers long-term, whether it’s Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb or others.
Grabbing extra picks is great, but when you use that strategy along with letting valuable veterans walk and not being proactive in outside free agency, it tends to catch up with a club. After five straight postseason appearances, it appears that the Bengals’ compensatory pick chasing and lack of free agency action caught up to Cincinnati in 2016.