Dre Kirkpatrick (27) is here through 2016.
If you want to know the Bengals' plan heading into a game-changer season, follow the money. They keep dropping it when it comes to stability and they hope the homegrown trend continues with another fruitful draft that begins Thursday.
Last week they pledged about $4-5 million to extend head coach Marvin Lewis for another year and on Tuesday they committed a total of $15.5 million when they picked up the 2016 option on their two first-round picks from 2012, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and right guard Kevin Zeitler. It came on the day ESPN posted a survey showing the Bengals lead the NFL with 37 of their drafted players still on their roster.
"The Bengals deserve some credit here for the drafts that have produced four consecutive playoff teams and not simply because coach Marvin Lewis' tenure has ensured a common philosophy for more than a decade," wrote Kevin Seifert of ESPN's NFL Nation. "This franchise has put up the NFL's sixth-best winning percentage (.633) since 2011 with homegrown players at nearly every (presumed) starting position. Their quarterback, top two running backs, tight ends and top three receivers are all original draft picks. So are the entire offensive and defensive lines and three of their four top defensive backs."
Zeitler, the ninth-rated guard in the NFL last year as graded by profootballfocus.com, counts $8 million against the 2016 salary cap. Kirkpatrick, who had the best run of his three-year career late last season when he was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week after two late interceptions of Peyton Manning late in the play-off clinching victory over Denver, counts $7.5 million.
Those deals are guaranteed for injury only and they can pull it before next March and the start of free agency. But the Bengals hope they can get long-term contracts with both in order to cut down the cap number and make room for their three top receivers, as well making a run at their two starting safeties and two starting tackles as 10 starters and regulars head into their contract seasons.
"They are not only good players, they are good people and good teammates, part of a winning mix," Lewis said at his pre-draft news conference Tuesday. "Kevin has started since the day he walked in this building. For Dre, things didn't quite bounce his way early on, with injuries and gaining full confidence, but he continued to fight his tail off and we saw the good results this past year. We're very excited about his future and how he's attacked the offseason again."
With another draft starting in Thursday night's first round and their first pick at No. 21, the Bengals are looking for the same type of guys after grabbing Kirkpatrick at No. 17 and Zeitler at No. 27. Zeitler started right away and while Kirkpatrick has battled injuries and incumbents to get on the field he enjoyed a break-through season in 2014.
"I believe we have six picks in the first four rounds, so it gives us an opportunity to add guys whom, in my opinion, ought to be significant players by some point next season," Lewis said. "Maybe not necessarily this season, but hopefully through the 2016 season at some point. We have to make sure we select people like that."
When it comes to homegrown players, the Bengals lead a top ten with the Packers (32), Vikings (31), Patriots and 49ers (29), Ravens and Texans (28), Rams (27) and Steelers (26), according to ESPN.com. There is no sure-fire template, but three of those teams have been to the last four postseasons (Bengals, Packers, Patriots), the Pats and Ravens have won a Super Bowl in the last three seasons and the Steelers won the AFC North last season a year after the Bengals won it.
ESPN points to the major reason for homegrown players as continuity at the top, where Bengals president Mike Brown, director of player personnel Duke Tobin, and Lewis have been in place since 2003.
"Not surprisingly," Seifert wrote, "the top six teams on this list have all had their top draft decision-maker in place for at least five years (and an average of 11.6 years)."
The Bengals have been universally applauded for their drafts since 2009 and one of the reasons is a Bengals blueprint has emerged with the consistent grade of the same evaluators for the same offense and defense.
"He has to have great energy. He has to love to play football. He's got to be smart enough to handle it," Lewis said of a future Bengal. "I think within all of that if I had a fourth (trait) it would be all the physical traits of speed and athleticism, but those other three are very important, because you have to work very hard to be a great player in the NFL. You're coming into a group of players that works extremely hard and knows the physicality of the game so you have to have all those attributes in order to make it. That's probably the biggest hoop to jump through."
For the most part in this evolution, enthusiasm, energy and brains have trumped pure talent alone. It's how they ended up with starting wide receiver Marvin Jones and starting safety George Iloka in the fifth round of the Dre-Zeitler draft. It's how they ended up with team MVP candidate Jeremy Hill in last year's second round and running back Rex Burkhead in the sixth round in 2013.
"To have the streamlined thought by everybody of what's important; of what our type of player looks like. I think to me it's important when we get into later rounds we're looking to draft guys that have qualities that stand out for us," Lewis said. "That can do something that makes them have an edge on making us better and making the football team and becoming an eventual starter.
"Not that you have to walk in today and be a starter, but can they be a Marvin Jones type guy that can be a starter in a couple of years or in a year and a half or whatever it takes? Can they have some kind of special trait that does it? That means they have to have an NFL body and an NFL mind and some of these other things, but what are their special traits that make it that way."
Bengals president Mike Brown set a two-edged tone for stability when he gave Lewis the extension. With Lewis' 0-6 post-season record, many precincts of Bengaldom aren't happy. But Lewis and, apparently Brown, think an extension is important enough to give some type of security to the coaching staff, as well as a sign to the impending flood of free agents.
"Obviously the commitment that we both have from my end, from their end, and secondly for the ability for our coaching staff to know what's going on with their futures," Lewis said. "It's a big year for our players with some guys with contracts that could expire at the end of the year, so it enables them to understand who the head coach would be as they make those kind of commitments as well as we work to get those guys signed as we move forward in the future here, over the next few months, prior to the season even. So, it kind of stabilizes a lot of things that way and takes some of the gray areas out of things."
Brown and Lewis may be two different guys. But between them they have about 75 years of experience in the NFL and whether it's the '50s or the 2000s, they both have learned the value and price of stability.
"I think it's great we were able to come to an agreement very quickly. I know what was important to me, Mike knows what's important to him and we were able to settle on it pretty quickly," Lewis said.