This is part one of a two-part series detailing the roster construction of the teams participating in Super Bowl LVI.
NFL general managers and head coaches, take a seat and pull out a notebook. Mike Brown and Zac Taylor are giving a clinic on how to pull off a successful roster rebuild.
Two years ago, the Cincinnati Bengals were 2-14. They were quarterbacked by a 32-year-old Andy Dalton. They had the second-worst scoring differential in the AFC and scored the third-fewest points in the league. Unsurprisingly, all of that mediocrity earned Cincinnati the first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Unknown to everyone at the time, the conference in which the Bengals were convincing bottom-feeders was the same conference they would represent in the Super Bowl just two years later. The man that Cincinnati selected with that first overall pick would be the one to lead them there, but he wouldn’t be the only key contributor acquired by the Bengals through the draft. He was one of many, making the AFC North’s forgotten team a fantastic case study in what can be accomplished when a front office effectively uses the draft to spearhead a rebuild.
The player in question is, of course, Joe Burrow, who the Bengals drafted from LSU after Burrow posted one of the greatest single seasons for a quarterback in the history of college football. And a Super Bowl team fielding a quarterback that they selected early in the draft is not a novel idea. For years, names like Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and (more recently) Patrick Mahomes made trips to the dance with the team that grabbed them out of college. But what makes this Bengals team so infatuating is that it’s not just Burrow who represents the Bengals’ draft lot; he’s one of several crucial players who came to Cincinnati through the draft.
In fact, when you look at the players Burrow plays with most, it becomes easy to see just how heavily the Bengals rebuild is focused on drafting talent. Perhaps the most obvious example is the player who has become Burrow’s easily identifiable partner in crime – wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase – who played with Burrow at LSU and took no time at all to acclimate to his new surroundings. But aside from Chase, the Bengals offense is rife with drafted talent everywhere you look. In the midst of a resurgent 2021 season, Joe Mixon was a second-round pick in 2017.
Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, wide receiver that has quickly taken a second-fiddle role to the rookie Chase, were second-round picks in 2020 and 2016, respectively. CJ Uzomah, the tight end who came hot out of the gate this season and played a significant role in Cincinnati’s Wild Card win over the Raiders, was taken out of Auburn in the fifth round in 2015. Players like Jonah Williams, Trey Hopkins, and Hakeem Adeniji came to Cincinnati through the draft, even on the offensive line.
In fact, of the Bengals’ thirteen most used players on offense based on a snap count, eleven were drafted by the team. That’s unbelievable efficiency.
Interestingly, the defense tells a different story. Based on how many high draft picks were used on offensive players (they haven’t used a first-round selection on a defensive player since 2016). The defense instead shows a reliance on opening the wallet in free agency. Players with massive snap counts – players like Vonn Bell, Chidobe Awuzie, and Mike Hilton – were all brought to the Bengals by flexing their muscle in the player market. That list also includes Eli Apple and Trey Hendrickson, who was picked up after getting cut by Carolina.
But the draft imprint is still very evident on this Bengals defense. The clearest sign is Jessie Bates III, who was taken in the second round in 2018 and has developed into a crucial player in the Bengals secondary. And while not the same gleaming prospects that Bates or any of the offensive pieces were, Sam Hubbard and Germaine Pratt have both returned exceptional value on the third-round picks that Cincinnati expended on them.
We always hear about the importance of using the draft as a valuable tool to build a championship-caliber squad, but rarely do we see it done as quickly and as efficiently as the Bengals over the last twenty-four months. It’s a refreshing breath of fresh air and a very timely reminder of how transformative the draft can be for a team if it prioritizes scouting and draft capital.
Two years removed from being the worst team in the National Football League, the Cincinnati Bengals are a win away from the Lombardi Trophy. If they get across the line, they’ll have their army of draftees to thank.
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