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Re-examining the Bengals’ 2015 NFL Draft class

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They say it takes three years to properly grade an NFL team’s draft haul. We’re in that time frame for the Cincinnati Bengals’ 2015 draft class.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Given the Bengals’ five straight postseason berths from 2011-2015, it’s hard to say that one draft class can be pointed to as the catalyst to the ensuing losing seasons in 2016-2017.

Yet, that’s exactly where many folks are pointing as the crux of recent issues.

In retrospect, the class, as a whole, is a near-disaster as the crop is now entering its fourth season. In case you need a refresher, here’s the haul from four springs ago:

  • Round 1, pick No. 21: Cedric Ogbuehi, OL, Texas A&M
  • Round 2, pick No. 53: Jake Fisher, OL, Oregon
  • Round 3, pick No. 85: Tyler Kroft, TE, Rutgers
  • Round 3, pick No. 99: Paul Dawson, LB, TCU
  • Round 4, pick No. 120: Josh Shaw, DB, USC
  • Round 4, pick No. 135: Marcus Hardison, DL, Arizona State
  • Round 5, pick No. 157, C.J. Uzomah, TE, Auburn
  • Round 6, pick No. 197, Derron Smith, DB, Fresno State
  • Round 7, pick No. 238, Mario Alford, WR, West Virginia

Now, before we give our own thoughts and reviews of this class as we are closing in on 2018 training camp, Sports Illustrated recently took a look back to each team’s 2015 class and re-graded them. This is from SI’s Connor Orr:

Despite some mid- to late-round hits at tight end, this was a massive swing at securing both tackle spots for the Bengals long-term, and as of now it looks like a miss. Ogbuehi won’t have his fifth-year option picked up, and the Bengals swung a trade to patch up the left tackle position.

GRADE: C

Frankly, this seems to be a pretty generous grade for the Bengals at this point. Dawson, Hardison, Smith and Alford aren’t even on the team, while the player who has contributed the most has been Kroft, and he’s essentially a backup tight end.

Uzomah and Shaw have also had flashes in backup roles, which is essentially what you want from mid-round picks. But, it’s those first two picks that really puts a damper on the entire class.

The 2018 season is a huge one for Ogbuehi and Fisher. The team has opted not to pick up the fifth-year option for Ogbuehi, who has struggled at both right and left tackle spots when given the chance to start. In this year’s OTAs, Ogbuehi has been backing up both tackle spots and will be getting reps at guard as well.

Meanwhile, Fisher looks to have the inside track on the open right tackle spot this year. It’s far from a sure thing though—both in starting status and in productivity outlook—but, if he’s able to anchor that side, this class gets a nice boost.

Foresight didn’t pay off:

It seems like the early pendulum of emotions on the Bengals’ decision to draft both Ogbuehi and Fisher back in 2015 swung both ways. Initially, it seemed like a bit of a waste, but others found the “best player available” strategy, mixed with future planning, as sage decision-making.

Going into the 2015 season, incumbent left tackle Andrew Whitworth was 33 years old and approaching an expiring contract after 2016. Meanwhile, the roller coaster ride that was Andre Smith at right tackle was in the last year of his deal and had suffered a myriad of injuries over what had been the previous six seasons with the club.

While it was unclear if initial plans with both rookie linemen pointed to playing guard, but the possibility was definitely there either way. Aside from the contractual issues with Whitworth and Smith at the time, right guard Kevin Zeitler was also set to be a free agent after 2016.

So, from these senses, the decisions to take both Ogbuehi and Fisher showed wisdom within the franchise. After all, protecting the quarterback is of paramount importance in the NFL.

Outside of the first two picks in the class, Dawson has to be up there, in terms of overall disappointment. After a solid career at TCU, many thought that he could pair up with Vontaze Burfict to solidify the continuously-stout defense.

Unfortunately, the rumblings of Dawson’s immaturity in college followed him into the NFL. After the Bengals cut ties with Dawson in 2017, he has bounced on and off of the Seahawks’ roster and is currently a free agent.

Current grade and possible outlook:

Orr’s grade of a “C” for the Bengals seems generous at this point. With four of the nine picks not even being on the roster and there not even being a locked-in starter this offseason, this class has truly set the team back over the past couple of years.

For now, a “D” seems appropriate for this class. Kroft and Uzomah have stepped up at various times when Tyler Eifert was out with injury, with Kroft’s seven touchdowns last year being the top of their contributions. Shaw has had a few nice moments, but he’s in a roster fight this year with the additions of Jessie Bates III, Darius Phillips and Davontae Harris.

But, what if Fisher and/or Ogbuehi can somehow salvage their careers this year? The cards are stacked against them, but if the Bengals can get one or both of them to be viable starters, this class really takes a different shape.

We’ll see if Fisher can run with the open right tackle spot, or if Ogbuehi can somehow potentially find a niche at right guard. For the time being though, the 2015 class remains one that has greatly hindered the club after five straight postseason berths.