When the pre-draft process time of the year hits, I'm annually reminded of one player when thinking about Marvin Lewis and the Bengals: Peter Boulware. It's a weird connection, given that Boulware has long been retired from the league and never donned the orange and black, but I can't seem to help it.
"Why?", you ask? Simply put, Boulware was one of Lewis' greatest creations on that All-World defense that won the Baltimore Ravens a championship at the turn of the millennium. Sure, Ray Lewis is the guy that will always be remembered and pointed at as the example of Lewis becoming a "defensive genius", but the coach's innovative style really shined with Boulware.
The former Florida State Seminole was drafted No. 4 overall in 1997 and finished his nine-year career with 70 quarterback sacks, even though he didn't play the entire 2004 season. In that span, he amassed four Pro Bowl berths with three double-digit sack seasons and 14 forced fumbles. Since Boulware donned a Ravens jersey, Lewis has been trying to find a clone of him in Cincinnati.
Sometimes project players and taking risks are necessary. Teams need to take chances on "high upside" guys who could blossom into productive NFL players, if placed in the right system with excellent coaching. Other times, as was the case with Boulware, the project isn't the player, but a position switch.
If you're sensing a "win now" theme from us at CJ and from the Bengals organization as well, you're right. As has been previously mentioned, major organizational changes could occur after 2015. Lewis' contract is set to expire, quarterback Andy Dalton's mega-deal becomes much less team-friendly after next season and a slew of important players are set to hit free agency in the spring of 2016 (A.J. Green, Reggie Nelson, Andre Smith, Andrew Whitworth, etc.).
The Bengals need young, athletic players who can come in right away and contribute. The period for tinkering with youngsters to find a niche has passed, given the aforementioned urgency hitting the team in 2016. This fall is a critical point in the franchise's future, if they want to prove that they've put together the right formula for a championship squad after teasing everyone the past four years.
Let's take a look at Lewis' track record with "project players" since taking over as the Bengals' head coach in 2003:
Stacey Andrews, Fourth Round (No. 123 Overall), 2004 Draft: The behemoth from Ole Miss was a track star that had a very small sample size of college football to his name. Andrews started 32 games in five seasons with Cincinnati and was inexplicably franchise tagged before the 2008 season. He wasn't re-signed after that.
David Pollack, First Round (No.17 Overall), 2005 Draft: Unfortunately, Pollack's issues were nothing more than a freak accident. After a lengthy contract holdout (thank God those don't happen anymore, right?), Pollack only started five games as a rookie and amassed 4.5 sacks. In the third game of 2006, Pollack broke a vertebrae in his neck and never played again. The former Georgia Bulldog was attempting to make a tough transition to a Boulware-type of role.
Reggie McNeal, Sixth Round (No. 190 Overall), 2006 Draft: McNeal was a college quarterback that Lewis wanted to convert to a wide receiver; it never worked out. McNeal was part of the large amount of Bengals that got into legal trouble in the mid-to-late-2000s. He played seven games in the NFL with one rush for 8 yards.
Jerome Simpson, Second Round (No. 46 Overall), 2008 Draft: Simpson's athleticism was off the charts--so why was he playing for little Coastal Carolina if he was going to be the next big thing? Simpson never seemed to grasp the mental aspects of the game and just relied on his athleticism. He had some awesome moments (2011 touchdown flip, anyone?) but still didn't live up to the billing of a big-time wideout and it took him more than two years to see any kind of significant playing time. He was cut by the Vikings before the 2014 season after more legal issues and hasn't caught on anywhere else.
Jason Shirley, Fifth Round (No.145 Overall), 2008 Draft: The Bengals committed paralysis by over-analysis with this guy. After not cracking the defensive line rotation, the Bengals (in)famously attempted to convert him to offensive guard, which was chronicled during the team's first "Hard Knocks" appearance. Neither position worked out for the big man and he only played in three games with the Bengals.
Chase Coffman, Third Round (No.98 Overall), 2009 Draft: It's hard to call a guy who won awards as college football's best tight end in 2008 a project, but he was. Coffman was basically a huge receiver who didn't know how to block inline or do much else that well-rounded NFL tight ends are asked to do. Given the Bengals' wonderful acumen with proper utilization of tight ends, they were never able to find a niche for Coffman. He bounced to Atlanta and is currently with the Titans.
Dontay Moch, Third Round (No.66 Overall), 2011 Draft: Moch was and is a physical freak, but it didn't seem to equate to on-field performance, unless it was in the preseason against third and fourth-stringers. Another guy that Lewis attempted to mold into the Pollack/Boulware type, the project just never got off the ground. Moch is currently a free agent.
Devon Still, Second Round (No.53 Overall), 2012 Draft: Given what he's been through personally, you want the guy to succeed. But, whether it's a motor/desire issue (remember his conversation with Mike Zimmer in the 2013 "Hard Knocks"?), injuries and/or his mind rightfully focused on his ailing daughter, Still hasn't shown that he can even be a reliable rotational player in the NFL. It's a shame for a guy that has it physically and was once viewed as a steal in the second round.
Orson Charles, Fourth Round (No.116 Overall), 2012 Draft: Charles had a lot of talent, but the Bengals' staff didn't think he fit into any one position. After attempting to develop him as a tight end, they moved him to fullback. Neither worked and he was let go. Perhaps if they dedicated the proper time to develop him naturally as a tight end, the Bengals might not be looking at the precarious situation that they have with that position group in 2015.
Alright, I'll Give You These:
Jonathan Fanene, Seventh Round (No. 233 Overall), 2005 Draft: Fanene played seven seasons as a Bengal and racked up 13.5 sacks as a valued backup. He alternated as a rushing tackle and an end and was a fan favorite.
Frostee Rucker, Third Round (No.91 Overall), 2006 Draft: Rucker is still playing today and was another valued backup player on the defensive line. He only had seven sacks in his five seasons in Cincinnati, but always seemed to have a knack for making a big play.
Anthony Collins, Fourth Round (No. 112 Overall), 2008 Draft: The former Kansas Jayhawk came out a year early and wasn't seen as a true finished project. Collins was tried at guard, and was an effective emergency starter at both right and left tackle for the Bengals. He scored a big payday from Tampa Bay before the 2014 season.
Michael Johnson, Third Round (No. 70 Overall), 2009 Draft: Before his senior season, Johnson was projected as a top-10 type of pick. While he still produced as a senior, he didn't live up to expectations and some questioned his motor causing him to fall to the third round. The Bengals toyed with him at outside linebacker and defensive end, but he found his home on the outside and became a solid all-around lineman for Cincinnati before departing to Tampa Bay this offseason.
Clint Boling, Fourth Round (No. 101 Overall), 2011 Draft: The Bengals covet linemen with versatility and Boling fit that bill coming out of college. But, was he a tackle? A guard? Cincinnati has plugged him in as the starting left guard over the past couple of seasons and he has fared well. It's likely that they will try and re-sign him this offseason, as he is a free agent.
Still Up In The Air:
Margus Hunt, Second Round (No. 53 Overall), 2013 Draft: Hunt has just 1.5 sacks in two seasons with Cincinnati. He failed to step in and have a big effect in Johnson's absence, but is attempting to see if hitting reset this offseason will help him in 2015. So far, it's been…"meh".
Shawn Williams, Third Round (No.84 Overall), 2013 Draft: The Bengals love Georgia boys, even if they have their shortcomings. After the Bengals drafted Williams it was said that the club needed to teach him pass defense schemes, as he wasn't responsible for too much of that as a Bulldog. So far, Williams has been decent on special teams, but that's about it. His time to shine might come after 2015 when the team has a mountain of impending free agents, but given Lewis' spotty track record with safeties, it doesn't look promising.
Will Clarke, Third Round (No. 88 Overall), 2014 Draft: The Bengals needed another end to bring in to support Hunt after Johnson left and Clarke was their guy. He wasn't an overly productive player for the Mountaineers, but has the size. We compared the two ends to see the similarities and differences earlier this year and Clarke had minimal impact in 2014. With the team wanting to boost their pass rush in 2015, Clarke might get a shot at more playing time.
James Wright, Seventh Round (No. 239 Overall), 2014 Draft: Eyebrows were raised when the Bengals used a pick on a wide receiver who didn't have a catch his entire senior season. Wright came in and contributed a little bit, but an injury halted his growth as a rookie. The Bengals need more explosiveness at wideout, as was evidenced when their starting guys went down with an injury. Wright may get a shot at contributing next year--maybe in the slot?
One could argue that there are more than these names in each category, depending on your viewpoint. Some may even argue that some of these names don't belong in the respective categories in which they have been placed. Fine, but you see the point here.
The Bengals might be in "win now" mode, making the need for immediate impact players a huge one. While project players are necessary for teams some of the time, 2015 might be a year for "pro ready" guys (like those still on the roster from the 2011 draft), while dedicating time to current projects already underway.
Knowing Lewis and Co. though, there will be an investment in a project guy and it doesn't necessarily have to be just in the draft. Former high picks that have been cast off from other clubs are always an option for the Bengals and with their supposed jump in free agency this year, keep an eye peeled there too.