Draft Season: Illusion And Reality At The Top 

When Roger Goodell steps to the lectern for the draft's first pick, we'll probably know what he's going to say.
When Roger Goodell steps to the lectern for the draft's first pick, we'll probably know what he's going to say.

The Bengals hold the No. 1 overall pick on each day of the draft and that can only mean one thing in the Spy vs. Spy mentality of the NFL. Facts are on sabbatical until selections start the night of April 23.  

The date is fitting. The birthday of William Shakespeare. The scribe who covered illusion and reality long before the slings and arrows of Super Bowl I. The guy who wrote, "Foul is fair and fair is foul," (Macbeth) and "One may smile, and smile, and be a villain,'' (Hamlet) would have been a great NFL general manager.

"In the world of the draft industrial complex these days, you never know where stuff is coming from and in my experience about 98 percent of it is wrong," says Bill Polian, the Pro Football Hall of Fame general manager whose Colts wrote poetry after taking Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning No. 1 two decades ago.

"Whether it's evaluation of players or people speaking about the state of franchises," Polian says. "If you're up there making a pick, the best thing to do is to ignore it all. Don't even engage with it. Do what you have to do to make the right choice for your team and not anyone else. Just do it. The rest is just noise and doesn't count."

The Bengals know where the current noise started. It emanated on radio row during Super Bowl week when former No. 1 overall Carson Palmer cast doubts on his former club's desire to win even though he threw his last pass for the Bengals when Joe Mixon had yet to gain his liberty from Freedom High School. Media outlets pushed the story and immediately prime suspects in the industry became teams behind the Bengals that covet LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, the presumptive No. 1.

All of which has much of Bengaldom baffled coming off its winningest decade in history while some former long-time NFL GMs who held that No. 1 say it is simply draft machinations at work.

"I never felt the Bengals weren't trying to win. That never crossed my mind," says Charley Casserly, the former Washington and Houston GM now an NFL Network analyst. "I always felt they were trying to be competitive. With Marvin (Lewis), they had a heck of a run. Playoffs, playoffs, playoffs. People talk about not winning the big ones. Carson gets hurt, knocked out against Pittsburgh early. You've got that issue to deal with."

Palmer's stretch with the Bengals ended in a trade when his holdout looked like retirement until Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell broke his collarbone 48 hours before the trade deadline. The Bengals were roundly praised for the deal and the ensuing decade became one of their most successful, behind only the two AFC titles of the 1980s. Andy Dalton ended up playing 36 more Bengals games than Palmer, won 24 more times and led the Bengals to three more postseasons.

Since the new collective bargaining agreement that began in that 2011 season, the Bengals are one of 10 teams to make the playoffs at least five times. Over that span the Bengals have the 13th most wins in the league (per Elias Sports Bureau) with a .514 winning percentage, higher than such teams as the Rams' .462, the Titans' .438 and the Cardinals team Palmer embraced in the last five seasons of his career at .493. Not to mention the .438 of the Dolphins, the team holding the fifth pick and said to be leering at Burrow.

"Sounds like the same stuff. Ever year there are shenanigans that go on," says Billy Devaney, the former Rams GM who took Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford with the No. 1 pick 10 years ago.

"We kind of set our sights early on Bradford. There was stuff that started to come out that Bradford didn't want to play in St. Louis," Devaney says. "There were teams behind that really wanted Bradford. They were putting stuff out and don't discount agents, also. They try to inject themselves in the process and kind of think they probably have more juice and more power to try and orchestrate something and they don't. Between the agents and the teams behind Cincinnati, this probably isn't the end of it. This will go on right up until draft time."

Duke Tobin, the Bengals director of player personnel who oversaw the transition from the Palmer-Chad Bengals to the Green-Dalton version and is in charge of crafting the next reincarnation, said last month at the Senior Bowl the last decade hasn't been good enough because they haven't won the big one. But, like Casserly says, the Bengals have spent the recent past winning consistently in one of the game's toughest divisions, the AFC North.

"That's playing Pittsburgh and Baltimore, two Super Bowl championship organizations. And you beat them. That tells me a lot right there," Casserly says. "To me, a lot of bad luck in the playoffs."

As a senior NFL exec, Devaney competed against Palmer's Bengals (a team that had four other Pro Bowlers on offense in the guts of it all in '05, '06, '07) and since then as a college and pro personnel man has kept tabs on the Dalton Bengals. The knock on the club not wanting to win in either era has him mystified.

"They've got talent. On both sides of the ball. That's a crock of you know what if anyone is saying that," Devaney says. "There's talent there. Certainly enough talent that can win. You get a big-time marquee quarterback and things can change quickly.

"Are they going to the Super Bowl next year? Probably not. But I think there's a nucleus there. I think there's some really good young players there. Get the guy under center and you accelerate your progress 100 fold."

Bruce Allen never had the top pick in his 25 seasons as an exec with Oakland, Tampa Bay and Washington. But as a former agent who is the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame coach George Allen, he knows all the ins and outs of an NFL Draft.

"There's always a lot of intrigue at the top," says Allen, whose decade-long tenure in Washington ended last month. "I think this year may be less than previous years because there are a couple of dominant players. The rumors and the hype leading into the draft will only get louder and louder as we get closer to April. In this day and age you have the ability to make up any story you want and it will be forgotten in a week. Agents and teams will use it to their advantage until draft night."

Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams at the last draft, giving the Bengals two No. 1s this season.
Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams at the last draft, giving the Bengals two No. 1s this season.

Allen can't get over how good the fit is with Burrow and the Bengals, given each's lineage. Burrow is a son of Ohio (Athens) as well as the son of Jimmy Burrow, a former pro player and long-time college coach. Bengals president Mike Brown is the son of Bengals and Browns founder Paul Brown, the greatest coach of them all and the man who urged his father to draft Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason.

Mike Brown oversaw the drafts that yielded Palmer and Dalton, making the Bengals the only team in the last 16 years to draft two quarterbacks that both started more than 60 games for the teams that chose them.

"I think the Bengals have a bright future because of the commitment they've made to quarterbacks," Allen says. "This family understands superior quarterback play as well as anybody in the NFL."

It's a family that has certainly paid quarterbacks. Paul and Mike Brown made sure Esiason was the first Bengal to make $1 million a year and one of the highest paid players in the game and Palmer had just 28 NFL starts before the Bengals dropped on him one of the NFL's biggest deals ever at the time at nearly $119 million for nine years (the biggest depending how you compute it) in the final days of the 2005 season.

"There's no doubt the Bengals will field at least half a dozen phone calls," says Allen of interest in trading for the top pick. "Calls from teams that are serious and teams that aren't as serious, they're just seeing how committed the Bengals are to the pick. These rumors will be flying all around the country." 

Polian calls the charge against the Bengals not wanting to win "nonsense."

"Whoever visits the Bengals, I'm sure Mike and Katie and Troy (Blackburn) will point out the recent success they've have had and go from there," Polian says. "Usually you can find agents' fingerprints all over these things. Both agents who represent a particular player or agents who are trying to denigrate a particular player so they can boost their guy's stock. And of course the agents always have fellow travelers in the media."

Joe Burrow: presumptive No. 1
Joe Burrow: presumptive No. 1

Those prospects that visit Paul Brown Stadium before the 2020 draft get the tour of the most recent investments. In the last few years alone the Bengals have spent millions renovating player and coach spaces at PBS, upgrading technology and video that enhance analytics and personnel, and head coach Zac Taylor's two biggest coaching staffs in team history. Plus, they'll see the locker of A.J. Green, their best player they signed to a $115 million second contract before hoping to re-sign him again this offseason.

According to various reports cited by the Bengals, under the new CBA the team has averaged in the upper half of the NFL in annual salary cap spending. In the first five years of the CBA, the NFL Players Association reported the Bengals were ninth in aggregated spending at more than $567 million, $37 more million than the Steelers, $5 million more than the Ravens and $23 million more than the Cardinals.

The top visitor looks to be Burrow, an attractive pick not only because of his Ohio ties and being a coach's son, but he's also coming off the greatest season a college quarterback ever had. Devaney says there'll be a lot of noise, but it won't matter.

"Rarely is it the player voicing any kind of concern or has any real reservations," Devaney says. "They want to go No. 1. They're competitive guys. They want to go number one in the draft … All of this noise, it's just crowd noise." 

Polian likes Burrow for all kinds of reasons, especially with Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's status.

"If Tua were healthy, it would be a horse race and I'm not sure who would win," Polian says. "But Tua is not healthy at this point and until we know what the long-term prognosis is it's hard to project him No. 1 … especially when there's a guy like Joe that has the goods and there are no issues.

"Burrow's father is a long-time football guy. A player and coach. He knows what he's looking at. If Joe needs advice, he doesn't have to stray far from the kitchen table."

But history says in the weeks and months leading up the draft, there'll be plenty of straying from the truth. Like the man wrote even before Paul Brown invented the draw play, "To be or not to be?"

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