With voting for the 2012 Bengals.com Hall of Fame class underway and training camp three weeks from opening, it's another reminder of just how young the nucleus of this team is. Start musing about the five current Bengals that have the best shot at winning the fan vote to make the Hall, and the first possible ballot in play looks to be 2020. But it's probably even later than that.
1. WR A.J. GREEN
Not exactly going out on a limb here. The working assumption is Green will play his entire career here or, if not, the bulk of it. He's the best player on the team, one of the best at his position in the NFL, and he's already set one club record with his 1,057 rookie receiving yards. Chad Johnson set the club career record with 10,783 yards in 151 games during 10 seasons for 71.4 per game. Green would break that in 153 games with his rookie average of 70.5 yards per game.
But Green's first-ballot nod probably won't come down until 2027 at the very least, you'd think, because players aren't eligible until five years after their last NFL season. That would mean his last season would be his 12th in 2022, but he could very well play beyond age 34. It's not a bad number, though. Johnson is heading into his 12th season in Miami at age 34 and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the Bengals No. 3 career receiver, seems to have played his 11th and last season in Oakland at age 34. Isaac Curtis, a member of the inaugural Bengals.com class, played the most seasons of any Bengals receiver and retired at 34 after his 12th season.
Next question: How are the fans going to remember Chad Johnson? With a first-ballot election as a local folk hero who became the first receiver in NFL history to win four straight conference titles for receiving yards and went to six Pro Bowls in stripes? Or, as a lurking malcontent who demanded a trade in 2008 and missed his last three years of voluntary camps and will have to wait to get in?
Will he be Curtis, elected on his first try, or Corey Dillon, the moody all-time Bengals rusher with first-ballot numbers who didn't get in on his first try in 2011?
2. LT ANDREW WHITWORTH
Whitworth is signed through 2015, when he turns 34 at the end of his 10th season, which would put him on the ballot in 2020. But you could see him playing a couple of years beyond. Would the Bengals move him to guard later in his career?
A Pro Bowl selection or two would make him close to a first-ballot lock. He might be one anyway, given his dominance in the division against such Pro Bowl rushers as Terrell Suggs of the Ravens and James Harrison of the Steelers, as well as his solid locker-room leadership during two playoff runs in the midst of the deaths of Chris Henry and Vikki Zimmer, a lockout, and the overhaul spawned by Carson Palmer's trade demand. Whitworth's popularity is evident in the Pro Bowl voting, when he won the fan vote in 2010, and his coaches believe he has played at a Pro Bowl level since he became the starting left tackle in '09.
Next question: Could the next two ballots be the years of the linemen? With three Pro Bowls, Max Montoya is generally regarded as the greatest Bengals guard ever. Last year he made the field of 10 finalists and finished in a tie with kicker Jim Breech and behind head coach Sam Wyche and running back James Brooks among those that missed the top three.
And next year Willie Anderson, regarded as the club's best right tackle with four Pro Bowl berths, is on the ballot for the first time. At the moment, the only offensive lineman in the Hall of the original eight members is left tackle Anthony Muñoz, the consensus best player in franchise history.
3. QB ANDY DALTON
We're talking about guys with the best chances to make it and Bengals fans love their QBs. Two of the three voted into the inaugural class were Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason and they were 1-2. Dalton looks like he's riding the same kind of wave.
Of course, not if his numbers or the team dips. But no one here or nationally think he's going to regress, especially since he became the first rookie in NFL history to throw 20 touchdown passes and lead his team to the playoffs without benefit of the spring camps he had this year. If his rookie numbers are his average, Dalton will break Anderson's club records for TDs (197) and passing yards (32,838) in his 10th season.
And by then, at age 33 in 2020, he could just be warming up. Anderson retired at 37, Esiason at 36, and Jon Kitna, after 46 of his 124 NFL starts were as a Bengal, just retired at 39. So the earliest Dalton probably appears on a ballot is the 2030s.
Next question: It may take until the '30s for Bengaldom to forgive Palmer and his trade demands. And by then, nobody is going to remember that after his second Pro Bowl he was considered one of the top three quarterbacks in the league or that he led the Bengals to two AFC North titles with completely different offenses.
The Bengals had Palmer signed through his 35th birthday in 2014 and he probably won't play much longer than that, making him eligible sometime in the early '20s. By then the sting should be gone, particularly if Dalton has been to a few more Pro Bowls and the Bengals make it to the big one a few times themselves. Maybe the fans should let Palmer sit for a few years, but here's one vote for his 20-11 record in the best division in football from 2005-10.
4. NT DOMATA PEKO
Peko signed an extension at age 23 that keeps him a Bengal to the age of 30 and that's not all that old for a nose tackle. Peko, 27, is coming off another year he finished as one of the NFL's leading interior tacklers. The past four seasons have been one of the golden ages of defense in Bengals history and Peko's steady, brute strength on running downs has been one of the constants in the NFL's most physical division.
Plus, as important as Whitworth's leadership has been on the offensive side of the ball, Peko has given the same on defense. With his sunny disposition, fierce play that matches his boundless mane, and several community endeavors, he's of the more popular and recognizable players on the roster.
How long can he go? Tim Krumrie, the first nose tackle elected to the Hall, retired at age 34 after 12 seasons, the longest stint by a Cincinnati down lineman that he shares with Eddie Edwards. Peko doesn't turn 34 until the 2018 season.
Next question: Two down linemen from the draft class of 2010 are going to be on the Hall ballot in 2025, or thereabouts, if tackle Geno Atkins keeps playing the way he's playing and end Carlos Dunlap can stay healthy. In just his second season, Atkins went to the Pro Bowl when he tied the team record for most sacks by a tackle. Dunlap has 14 sacks in what has amounted to his first 20 NFL games. Edwards, the club's all-time sack leader, had 83.5 in 170 games.
5. CB LEON HALL
If this is a golden age of Bengals defense, then the drafting of first-round corners back-to-back, Hall and Johnathan Joseph, is what ushered it in.
The Bengals think Hall is one of the best all-around cornerbacks they've ever had when combining his cover ability along with his tackling, and he never missed a game during his first five seasons until he blew out his Achilles in midseason last year. The Bengals swept the AFC North when Hall and Joseph anchored the corners in 2009 and when Nate Clements replaced Joseph last season they had a big hand in the Bengals 6-2 start before Hall got hurt.
Hall has certainly had a Hall of Fame rehab and the hope is he'll be close to what he was. He's signed through 2015, when he'll turn 31 in the last month of that season. That used to be old for a corner, but the 32-year-old Clements gave the Bengals what they needed and is looking for more, and the 33-year-old Terence Newman is coming off a strong spring camp.
Plus, it's not so crazy to think Hall could have a new career as a safety at some point because of his brains, size, hitting and hands. Hall had 20 interceptions in his first five seasons, so he's ticketed to pass cornerback Louis Breeden's 33 and become second on the all-time club list behind cornerback Ken Riley's 65.
Next question: Does head coach Marvin Lewis have a place in the Bengals.com Hall of Fame? He has coached the most games in Bengals history (144) in the most seasons (going into his 10th) with the most wins (69). He doesn't have a playoff win, but a fourth postseason appearance breaks Paul Brown's club record of three.
Like any coach, Lewis has taken withering blasts of second-guessing down through the years. But Bengals fans seem to cut their coaches a break as evidenced by their strong support of Wyche in any poll during the Hall process. And, like Wyche, Lewis is admired in Cincinnati for his community deeds as much as his coaching.
Yet, does he need to win an AFC title like Wyche to get the votes?
The best argument for Lewis is that in the previous nine seasons before he arrived, the Bengals didn't go to the playoffs and went 44-100. In the next nine, they've won two division titles and a Wild Card berth while going 69-76-1.