Posted: 6:45 a.m.
Even though the 2001 NFL Draft is so out of date these days that it was shown on only one channel and Mel Kiper Jr., had just one hair style, Eric Yarber still gets the question even though he is long gone as Oregon State wide receivers coach and T.J. Houshmandzadeh's career has become longer than his ponytail.
"Scouts still come up to me and ask me, 'Hey, do you have another T.J.?' " Yarber says from the land of the sun, now the receivers coach at Arizona State.
"I recommended him coming out, but they didn't listen. Now they listen. They're looking for that late-round guy that becomes a great player. So they ask me, 'Compare this kid to T.J.' "
As the seventh-round pick who went to this year's Pro Bowl, Houshmandzadeh is the poster child of the greatest draft in Bengals history. Now, seven years later, after yielding four top five career performers in franchise receiving, rushing and sacks, Draft Weekend finds the careers of Houshmandzadeh, fellow wideout Chad Johnson, and running back Rudi Johnson at the crossroads after the No. 1 pick of that class, defensive end Justin Smith, left for San Francisco in one of the richest deals in free agency.
"I wouldn't say we're at a crossroads," Houshmandzadeh said. "We're going to play the way we play. Whether Chad's here or not, I'm going to put up numbers, and you know Chad is going to ball out, so they'll still get credit for drafting him and Rudi is going to be back."
All open questions, but one thing is certain: The '01 draft provided a road map for others to follow with a couple of eternal verities about the process:
1. Take The Best Player
After the first day of that draft when the Bengals had taken Smith, Chad Johnson and tight end Sean Brewer (more on that later), two things happened before the Bengals draft room broke up for the night. As they prepared for rounds four to seven the next day, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski phoned Yarber to get his impressions on Houshmandzadeh as the Bengals lined up their board with the remaining players.
The top player on the list was Auburn running back Rudi Johnson and so the Bengals took him with one of Sunday's first picks in the fourth round even though they took running back Curtis Keaton in the fourth round the year before, they would sign Corey Dillon to a long-term deal a month later, and Brandon Bennett had successfully returned from reconstructive knee surgery.
"We had solid third-round grades on Rudi and we were surprised he was still there," says director of football operations Jim Lippincott. "Yeah, we had backs, but you were talking about a guy from a creativity standpoint that had all the things you're looking for in a, NFL running back: Strong. Lateral snap. Great vision. Later, that allowed us to trade Keaton for another pick."
TOP '01 RECEIVERS
7-204 T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Bengals: 7 years, 415-4878, 33 TDs
CLASS OF '01 RUNNING BACKS
4-100 Rudi Johnson, Bengals: 7 years, 1441-5742, 48 TDs
"That surprised me from a football player standpoint," says Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson. "Heath ran faster. But Rudi played fast. He was fast on tape."
Evans is still in the league, but only as a role player. Of the 10 backs drafted ahead of Johnson, only future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson (the fifth pick in the draft) has scored more touchdowns and only Tomlinson and Travis Henry (second round) have more career carries and yards.
Another knock on Johnson was he played just one year of Division I ball before coming out early. But a big selling point to the Bengals was the kind of year he had.
"Dominant. Player of the Year in the SEC," Lippincott says, and Anderson says, "If you're not moving in the SEC, you're a tattoo."
And Anderson saw something else that wasn't in the stats but that he thinks will revive Johnson's career this year:
"He's a very prideful man," he says.
2. Trust Those In The Know
Duke Tobin, the Bengals director of player personnel, calls it "having a feel." He believes the drafting of Chad Johnson and Houshmandzadeh are prime examples of the collaborative effort between the scouts and coaching staff and says it is particularly important in the later rounds.
"Not everybody is going to have seen the late guys and at that point you're looking for people to stand up and go out there for a guy," Tobin says. "We were fortunate that Bob had just come over from Pittsburgh and had spent time behind the scenes with Chad. That pushed it over."
Bratkowski's last act before becoming the Bengals offensive coordinator in 2001 was serving as the Steelers receivers coach at the Senior Bowl and his week coaching Johnson is now the stuff of legend.
Johnson would like it to be history the way he is talking, but Bratkowski thinks it will get all worked out. The irony here is that Johnson seems to be bristling from criticism he received from coaches last year, and Bratkowski has never hid the fact he has been tough on him.
"He hasn't been treated any differently since he's been here," Bratkowski says, and it was Bratkowski at the 36th pick that stood on the table to sway the Bengals from taking Chris Chambers.
Johnson had slipped because he ran lousy at the NFL scouting combine and his junior college roamings had teams worried about his stability. Bratkowski presented his Senior Bowl experience as the counter argument to an organization that was still feeling the aftershocks of dealing with another great second-round receiver whose ego and quirks blew up a locker room:
"It was kind of funny because we thought the two best receivers in the draft were Chad and Chambers and (seven) receivers had already been picked, so we felt pretty good because no matter what we were going to get one of them," Tobin says. "One guy was more polished and was going to probably help you quicker (Chambers), but the other guy had such tremendous upside. It would have worked out either way, but Chad has come on to eclipse Chris and that's pretty much how we had it analyzed."
"All scouts are always looking for the guy nobody knows and I left thinking, 'Hey, we've got something,' but by the end of the season and the Senior Bowl, the secret was out," Tobin says.
At the combine, Johnson sent eyes rolling when he showed up for the 40-yard dash in a garish yellow sweat getup, but Tobin says, "It was showing that he had gained some confidence after getting settled into the season."
Yarber remembers Johnson struggling in the first three games and the scouts asking him what was going on with this kid. While he told them to be patient, Yarber also tried to get them interested in Houshmandzadeh. The ponytail, the tattoos, the street bluntness didn't play. Yarber got hot at one scout.
"One scout came up to me and said, 'T.J's a thug,' and I jumped on the guy. I won't say where he's from," Yarber says. "I told him, 'Wait 'til he gets out of class and you go talk with him for 30, 40 minutes and watch tape with him and spend some time with him.' "
A few hours later, the scout came back hanging his head, telling Yarber the kid was brilliant and that he had him all wrong.
Yet no one but the Bengals liked him enough to take him. What put that over the top was not only Bratkowski's extremely close friendship with Oregon State head coach Dennis Erickson, but Bratkowski's experience with Yarber when Bratkowski was Erickson's offensive coordinator with the Seahawks and Yarber worked with the receivers.
"You work with a guy, you know a guy, you trust a guy and I trust Yarbs that he's going to tell me the real thing," Bratkowski says.
It was during that Saturday night phone call that Bratkowski told Yarber the Bengals were going to take him in the sixth or seventh round and Yarber delivered his now famous "Brat, if you get him in the sixth or seventh round, you're stealing."
Bratkowski wanted Yarber to compare Houshmandzadeh to a No. 4-5 receiver/special teams player they had in Seattle.
"There is no comparison," Yarber told him. "T.J. will get on the field and play for you."
Not only is that history now, it still gets Houshmandzadeh all fired up about the present.
"I'd like to ask Mel Kiper what was going on," Houshmandzadeh says. "I was the leading receiver on the No. 3 team in the country. Come on."
"People talk about the Bengals personnel people and that it's small and all that they can't do," Houshmandzadeh says. "But look at the players they get."
Lippincott says the tape was pretty clear.
"What separated Chad and T.J. was their route-running," Lippincott says. "It jumped off the screen. Someone taught them well."
When it gets to the seventh round, Tobin says the Bengals are looking for one or two outstanding traits. With Notre Dame safety Chinedum Ndukwe last year, it was brains and production.
"With T.J., it was his hands," Tobin says. "He didn't drop anything."
Look at the numbers. Johnson is the most productive receiver out of the draft with 559 catches and 8,000-plus yards, and Houshmandzadeh's 415 catches are more than what the top two receivers (David Terrell and Koren Robinson) in that draft did combined
3. Don't Judge A Draft For Three Or Four Years
By 2003, Houshmandzadeh and Rudi Johnson had nearly been cut a couple of times, but the new regime of head coach Marvin Lewis remained patient.
"Any draft pick is a product of how he's used," Tobin says, and it took a couple of years for them to blossom. In the end, it took injuries. Johnson took advantage of Corey Dillon's groin problem in '03 and after he got over his own hamstring injury Houshmandzadeh stepped up when Peter Warrick was sidelined by his knee woes.
"But still, when they drafted Kelley Washington (in '03) they put him ahead of me because he was drafted in the third round," Houshmandzadeh says. "I couldn't understand that. But I was lucky, too. If I had gone somewhere else, I might have been cut and out of the league. But early on, special teams helped me stay, returning kicks and punts."
4. Never Reach For Need
As if to typify the inexact science of it all, the Bengals' greatest draft yielded one of their biggest misses in Brewer, a San Jose tight end taken in the third round. He was here two years and had fewer catches than David Klingler and Akili Smith with 0.0.
The Bengals got hammered when it was revealed he had a smoking habit and that one of his college coaches questioned his work ethic. In the end, though, a lot of it came down to injuries. He could never get healthy after suffering some early pulls.
"We took him where we thought he was going to be in his career and it didn't pan out," Tobin says. "It just wasn't there."
The Bengals had the right tight ends pegged at the top of the draft in Todd Heap and Alge Crumpler. Brewer was their third guy and, of all people, Tony Stewart, was next on their list. That was a major reason they picked Stewart off waivers a year later and he became a solid backup, leading special-teamer and powerful locker room figure. He was drafted in the fifth round by the Eagles, after Brewer and Shad Meier in the third round, Jabari Holloway and Brandon Manumaleuna in the fourth, and Billy Baber in the fifth.
If the Bengals had to do it again, they would have probably gone with Manumaleuna, a bigger guy. But with Tony McGee heading into his last year, they appeared to panic and reached for the position instead of the player.
"I don't know, I thought Brew was pretty good," Houshmandzadeh says. "He was big and fast and he caught a lot of balls down the field in practice. I just think he got hurt and Tony and Marco (Battaglia) were good."
Bratkowski has seen it all before.
"Everybody misses or overvalues or undervalues guys," he says.
Take Isaac Bruce. Bratkowski had him at the top of his receivers list, but he went in the second round. Just right. He had Plaxico Burress rated ahead of Warrick when he was in Pittsburgh. Right. He had Ohio State's David Boston ranked highly. Wrong.
"It happens," he says.
5. Nothing wrong with safe
The one knock on that draft is that the Bengals over-drafted Justin Smith at No. 4 because he didn't become a dominant pass rusher worthy of such a high pick.
But he has probably played more defensive snaps than anyone in the league this decade, has only missed one game, has continually racked up in excess of 90 tackles per season and finished his Bengals career as the club's fourth-leading sacker with 43.5.
The grades on Smith had a wide range in the room. Plus, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Aaron Schobel, drafted in the second round that year, did what Smith never did and logged double-digit sack seasons while going to Pro Bowls.
"We identified him as a pass rusher and I think even Justin didn't consider himself a pass rusher," Lippincott says. "But he played with great toughness and effort and was very reliable."
Tobin says it's a hard pick with which to quibble.
"San Francisco didn't pay him like he was over-drafted," Tobin says. "Getting sacks is a team thing as much as an individual thing. It all works together. Coverage. Pressure from the other spots.
"You knew what you were getting with Justin. A try-hard, very talented and productive guy who never said much and loved to play and work out. You saw it when we franchised him and he didn't complain. The only thing he ever did that surprised us was he held out (his rookie year). But when it came to doing his job, it's hard to say you could have gotten any more."
With the big deal, Smith is going to be under much more pressure in 'Frisco. But with Chad Johnson's demands, Rudi Johnson's comeback, and Houshmandzadeh's contract, he may be missing even more drama here.
On Thursday night, Houshmandzadeh clarified his remarks concerning his comments earlier in the day to ESPN regarding his thoughts on Chad Johnson's trade demands.
"If he stays, it will be bumpy. If he goes it will be bumpy, but I think he'll get over the early bumps," Houshmandzadeh said. "I think we'll win no matter what happens, whether he's here or not. If someone doesn't want to be around, why keep him? If he wants to come back, I think he should come back. Right now he doesn't, but it's early. We'll see what happens.
"The bottom line is that this is Mr. (Mike) Brown's team and his family's team and they're going to do what is best for their company. Really, I would prefer he stay. We've been together, what? Eight years. I know if he leaves I'll get more attention (from the defense). I'll do what I do whether he's here or not., but I'd prefer he be here."
Houshmandzadeh also isn't concerned that Johnson's refutation of quarterback Carson Palmer's assertion that Johnson told him he'd be here "when he has to be."
"Knowing the kind of dude Carson is," Houshmandzadeh said, "it will roll right off his back. It won't be a problem."