The Cincinnati Bengals are in a team-building window that every floundering NFL franchise dreams about in meetings. Three years to hit on enough draft picks to maximize Joe Burrow's talent; while giving fans the playoff success they deserve.
They've been here before and they took advantage of the opportunity, but there's one key difference from their last run and the chance they have in 2021: Andy Dalton isn't Burrow.
The drafts from 2010-12 are arguably the best in team history. During that stretch, Cincinnati's draft return ranked seventh, third, and second among all NFL teams. The ratings are done by Football Outsiders using Football Reference's approximate value statistic. The Bengals got the bulk of their cornerstones for the next decade over that three-year span. Crucial contributors like Carlos Dunlap (2010), A.J. Green (2011), and Kevin Zeitler (2012) jumped out on the Bengals' draft board.
Those first and second-round picks were great, but the five-straight trips to the playoffs were cemented by what Duke Tobin and the front office did on day three of the draft.
In that run, they took four players in round four or later with a career approximate value of 30 or higher: Geno Atkins (89), Marvin Jones (46), Clint Boling (43), and George Iloka (31).
The coffers have run dry of late. We'll leave out 2020 because that class has played just one season, but from 2015-19, the Bengals' day three picks have accumulated just 118 total approximate value. That group includes 12 draft picks that recorded one or less approximate value, compared to six in the fruitful three-year stretch (2010-12) according to Football Reference.
The Bengals had a similar late-round bust rate in the polar opposite draft periods, yet their ammo earlier in the decade kept them afloat. Misses on Orson Charles and Shaun Prater in 2012 became afterthoughts after hitting on Iloka and Jones. They received both the Iloka and Jones picks via trade for Keith Rivers and Chad Johnson. Two years earlier, it was a similar story. Multiple fourth-round picks in 2010 helped the Bengals land an All-Pro talent in Atkins, which hid the fact that they completely whiffed on Roddrick Muckelroy.
Cincinnati received kudos across the board for their seven picks in 2020. The group joined 2012 and 2016 as one of three Bengals' draft classes since 1996 to have every player tally at least one approximate value. Burrow and Tee Higgins headline the group, but from Logan Wilson to Markus Bailey, there don't appear to be any complete busts.
They hit on the quarterback while squeezing out value with each selection. Whatever tweaks they made from the previous five drafts worked beautifully. The team wasn't just struggling in later rounds from 2015-19, it was an overall disaster in the war room.
The Bengals' return from those five drafts ranked only ahead of the Eagles and Jets, bringing home 2.6% of the total approximate value among those classes. It gets even worse when comparing their return on their draft capital against their total amount of picks, where they only surpass the Jets. The numbers bear out what fans have seen on the field. Homegrown talent floundering while they bring in free agents like DJ Reader, Trae Waynes, and Trey Hendrickson in hopes of changing things for the better.
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The Bengals have one homegrown All-Pro talent currently on their roster—safety Jessie Bates. It's too early to tell with Burrow or Higgins, but they are supposed to be great.
Expectations are Cincinnati will get a top-three overall player with the fifth pick. That player has a crucial role in winning games that crack open the Super Bowl window in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, they have so many weakness that they're going to have to land contributors in each round to really feel the autumn breeze.
The process is like darts, in a way. The more you throw, the more points you'll score. Tobin has essentially shot down the idea of trading back from five to avoid losing out on a marquee player, but if 2012 is any indication, he knows the previous analogy well.
That year the Bengals had nine selections in the first five rounds for the first time since 2004. The group slots in with the 2001 class as the Bengals' best haul of the century. That was largely because they had so many selections in the top 170 picks.
The fifth choice is getting all the attention, and rightly so. The pass-catcher or lineman selected needs to be a hit, but one player isn't going to completely change this team.
Time is a flat circle. The Bengals are in a similar position to where they were 10 years ago. They have their quarterback. Now they need to finish the job by putting the right pieces around him.
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