Bengals continue their renaissance with impressive draft haul
Out of the rubble of a 4-12 season in 2010, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis headed south to Mobile, Ala., to coach a group of NFL prospects in the Senior Bowl.
Lewis' North squad featured quarterbacks Jake Locker, Colin Kaepernick and Ricky Stanzi. On the South sideline stood quarterbacks Christian Ponder, Greg McElroy and a redhead from TCU named Andy Dalton.
"A week later, I'm home walking by the TV and I see this kid on one of the morning shows," Lewis said in an interview in his office last season. "I do a double take and they happened to put his name on the screen: 'Andy Dalton, TCU.'"
Dalton hadn't done much in the Senior Bowl -- he was 3 of 7 for 22 yards and was sacked twice - but Lewis was intrigued by his calm presence amid a peppering of questions during the interview. The more Lewis studied Dalton, the more he liked him.
Cincinnati selected him 35th overall in the 2011 draft.
"We really felt like he had the ability, but also the demeanor, that he could come in as a rookie and play," Lewis said.
Dalton and receiver A.J. Green, taken 4th overall in 2011, became the centerpieces of Cincinnati's monster draft a year ago and keyed a 9-7 playoff team.
Is it possible the Bengals' 2012 draft class is even better?
While projecting picks is always risky, the Bengals have grabbed another talented haul.
Cincinnati drafted 10 players (five offensive, five defensive), stockpiling many that should contribute immediately. They addressed veteran departures along their offensive line, spending the No. 27 pick on guard Kevin Zeitler of Wisconsin, who is expected to start.
They nabbed two quality wide receivers (Mohamed Sanu of Rutgers and Marvin Jones of Cal) and a versatile tight end (Orson Charles of Georgia) who will add diversity to offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's playbook.
They added both defensive heft (617 pounds between tackles Devon Still of Penn State and Brandon Thompson of Clemson) and playmaking ability (Dre Kirkpatrick of Alabama).
By the end of the three-day draft, the Bengals had received almost universal praise for their acumen.
This after Cincinnati's drafts in 2010 and 2011 produced four Pro Bowl players last season. (Dalton, Green, DT Geno Atkins and TE Jermaine Gresham).
The days of snickering at Bengals' draft picks may be over.
"We feel like we know what works," Lewis said Saturday in his post-draft press conference. "This is the 10th draft for me. I think everybody [in personnel] is comfortable with each other and it works."
The Bengals haven't had a giant change in philosophy -- oft-maligned team owner Mike Brown still runs the show -- but in March they added two scouts to a department that is one of the NFL's smallest.
Of greater significance was Cincinnati's ability to quickly replace Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco with young, productive leaders and faces of the franchise.
Dalton has been at the forefront, as quarterbacks usually are. Lewis believes last year's lockout had one unexpected benefit for Dalton. It allowed his teammates to get an unfiltered view of the rookie during player-only workouts.
With no coach shouting instructions or heaping praise, Dalton was forced to find his own way. When the regular season started, his Bengals teammates were accustomed to his voice.
In his second season, Dalton will have an even larger presence on the field and in the locker room. He has already been trading text messages with the Bengals' new skill position players, discussing what routes to work on.
"I was definitely watching our picks and I thought we did a very good job," Dalton said of the draft in a press conference Saturday. "You go from being the man on campus to just another one of the guys. It's going to be good for [the draft picks] to come in here and get working, get in the playbook and see how quickly they pick up on things."
In the unforgiving AFC North, where Baltimore and Pittsburgh routinely make the right personnel moves, a team like the Bengals can't afford to miss in the draft -- and recently they haven't.
In the midst of last season, Lewis talked about the final days with Palmer, the player he used to live five minutes from in Cincinnati.
"When I talked to him [last] February I was convinced that he was content to retire," Lewis said. "That was good because my job was to get everyone in this building to understand he wasn't coming back and that we had to move forward. He said 'I care too much about you. You have to replace me.' So, to me, that was that."
The Bengals did, drafting Dalton and trading Palmer to the Raiders for a first-round pick in 2012 (which became Alabama's Kirkpatrick) and a conditional second-round pick next year.
The Bengals drafted Green and traded Ochocinco to New England for a fifth-round pick in 2012 (which became Cal's Jones) and a sixth-round pick next year.
How good do those deals look now?
"A new beginning at the same address," is what Lewis calls the revamped Bengals.
In a little more than a year, the entire tenor of the franchise has changed. The team is younger and better.
The expectations have been raised.
The Bengals are making all the right moves.