The Cincinnati Bengals began their improbable run to Super Bowl LVI as a 150-1 underdog before the season. They were essentially given the same chances as the Jaguars and Lions. And who could blame them? Cincinnati had only won six games over the previous two seasons and their star rookie quarterback was rehabbing a major knee injury.
The story of how the Cincinnati Bengals roster was built is a multifaceted lesson. The draft is the most important part. Supporting those draft picks with quality money spent in free agency is essential. This is a lesson Bengals ownership never really did before the 2020 season.
Timing of when you are at your worst is also essential. The Bengals finished with the worst record in the league in 2019. Of course, this coincided with the ascension of then-LSU QB Joe Burrow into the stratosphere. To a lesser extent, this also meant the Cincinnati Bengals staff was able to coach in the 2020 Reese’s Senior Bowl. That week allowed them to get up close to four players who would make some impact on this Super Bowl run.
The Bengals roster is one of the youngest in the league and was built mostly through the draft. Let’s look at how each position group was constructed.
HOW THE CINCINNATI BENGALS ROSTER WAS BUILT
Joe Burrow set records at LSU, winning a national title and a Heisman Trophy in the process. Despite some narratives pushed out during the process, Burrow was always going to be the pick at number one. Sometimes, when you suck, timing is everything. The 2-14 2019 season now looks like the most important in franchise history.
Joe Mixon was a first-round talent in the 2017 draft but an off-the-field issue pushed him into the second round. Mixon has been a model citizen since landing in Cincinnati, a team leader, and one of the best RBs in the AFC. Backup Samaje Perine was acquired on waivers (twice) by the Bengals. He was teammates with Mixon at Oklahoma. In the 6th-round this year, the Bengals took a high-upside back in Chris Evans who has contributed in multiple roles.
Perhaps the most stacked position group on the team, the three core pass catchers were all selected with premium draft capital. Prior to the 2021 draft, the biggest debate was do you take the explosive playmaker in Ja’Marr Chase or the best offensive tackle in Penei Sewell? The Cincinnati Bengals opted for Chase and he finished with one of the best rookie receiving seasons ever and the best rookie postseason ever. Chase was everything the Bengals’ offense needed and took their productivity to another level. Tee Higgins had a great rookie season and followed that up with another great year in 2021/ They selected the Clemson product in the second round after taking Burrow. The steady rock over the middle has been Tyler Boyd. The 2016 second-rounder is Joe Burrow’s security blanket.
CJ Uzomah has emerged as one of the vocal leaders on this Super Bowl run. Uzomah was drafted in the 5th-round of the 2015 draft. Burrow looks for Uzomah in the red zone and on the third and intermediate routes. Reserve tight end Drew Sample was selected in the second round of the 2019 draft. This was obviously too high for the production they have gotten from Sample.
2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams may be the only offensive lineman that is consistently not getting Joe Burrow hit. Williams has been a steady rock on the left side. Left guard Quinton Spain and right tackle Isaiah Prince were scrap heap pickups that have performed “up and down” to put it mildly. Prince is replacing free agent signing Riley Reiff who was injured earlier this year. The signing of Reiff was enough to give the Bengals enough pause to pass on Sewell.
Center Trey Hopkins was a great find as an undrafted free agent in 2014 but the time may be coming soon to move on. One of the players the Cincinnati Bengals saw at the 2020 Senior Bowl was starting right guard Hakeem Adeniji. While Adeniji was my top-rated guard in that class, he certainly hasn’t played like it. This year’s second-round pick Jackson Carman has struggled mightily to adapt to the NFL. You see the occasional flash play but not nearly enough.
This group is the first one where the Bengals may have spent better than drafted better. 2018 3rd-round pick Sam Hubbard has been great. However, free agent acquisitions Trey Hendrickson and DJ Reader have taken the defense to another level. Hendrickson was ascending in his final year in New Orleans and then continued up to the apex this year.
DJ Reader has transformed the run defense and has been worth every dime they spent on him after signing him from the Houston Texans. They also signed interior rusher Larry Ogunjobi in free agency and he was a vital cog on defense before getting hurt in the Wild Card game. The Bengals also made a tremendous trade before the season. They dealt first-round bust Billy Price to the Giants for DT BJ Hill. If he did nothing other than the interception of Patrick Mahomes in the AFCCG, the trade would have been worth it.
The Cincinnati Bengals have also gotten contributions from several day three picks this season. Cam Sample (’21-4th), Khalid Kareem (’20-5th), and Josh Tupou (’17-UDFA) have all made plays during this run.
The linebacker position was for the longest time a problem spot for Cincinnati. Now it is a defensive strength. They hit on back-to-back third-round picks in 2019 and 2020 with Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson. They also have nice depth at the position with 2020-4th Akeem Davis-Gather (injured) and 2020-7th Markus Bailey. Waiver wire pickup Clay Johnston has also been solid.
Corner is another spot where the Cincinnati Bengals spent their way to success. They tried in 2020 free agency with Trae Waynes but that didn’t really work out. Undeterred, they let William Jackson walk in free agency and brought in Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton with the same amount of money Washington spent on Jackson. Both have been nothing less than fantastic in 2021. They also brought in Eli Apple has been far more good than bad in 2021, and has made some of the bigger plays during the playoff run. As a matter of fact, the Bengals don’t have any “homegrown” players at cornerback.
This group is headed up by 2018 second-round pick Jessie Bates III. The freakish ball hawk is one of the best safeties in the league. They added Vonn Bell as a free agent in 2020 and his contributions as a leader and as a player has been enormous. They also signed veteran safety Ricardo Allen as a reserve. 2017 6th-round pick Brandon Wilson is currently on injured reserve but was one of the best kick returners in the league.
The two longest-tenured Cincinnati Bengals are punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris. Huber was a fifth-round pick in 2009 and Harris was signed as an undrafted free agent the same year. Playing in Super Bowl LVI probably means more to them than most, I can imagine. Of course, we must talk about this year’s fifth-round pick Evan McPherson. “Money Mac” or “Shooter” McPherson…whatever you call him, the Bengals are playing tomorrow if not for his right leg. McPherson is 12/12 on his field goal attempts in the playoffs, including the last two game winners.
The Cincinnati Bengals model of blending good money in free agency with hitting on most of your draft picks is a way that most teams should want and try to follow. Of course, a little luck never hurt either.