Skip to main content

Rookie Class One For The Ages In Bengals 2020s Vision  

Tee Higgins chasing the Bengals best.
Tee Higgins chasing the Bengals best.

This year's draft class may not end up being the best in Bengals history, like the 2001 crop that yielded the franchise's single-season rushing and receiving leaders. But it certainly is shaping up to be the most productive group of rookie years they've ever had.

And it may not end up being the deepest, such as the 2006 group that gave rise to five players who have played at least 145 NFL games, two of whom are still playing and one the Bengals see next week when cornerback Johnathan Joseph comes to town with the Titans.

It may not even turn out to be the biggest what-if group like the 2005 star-crossed class.

But with transformative quarterback Joe Burrow already setting one NFL rookie record and within striking distance of others, Tee Higgins on pace to have one of the best rookie receiving seasons in franchise history, Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither already doing things that Bengals rookie linebackers haven't done in a decade, and Khalid Kareem expanding his role as an edge rusher to keep up with the injuries on the defensive line, it's hard to argue that the Bengals draft class of 2020 hasn't already made history. This season has seen the biggest contributions from the most rookies during the shortest amount of time in recent Bengaldom memory.

The growing pains of youth are all there as the Bengals cope with the angst of a 1-4-1 start. Tight losses. Veterans coping with role changes. Rookies dealing with a faster, better game. Frustration before vindication. Head coach Zac Taylor knows he has to win and the fans are restless. He also knows he's got a blueprint.

"We want to win for this community because they want so badly to support a winner, and so I get it," Taylor said this week. "But we have to make sure that we're doing it the right way and that we're not compromising quick fixes just for immediate success when we know they harm us as the season goes.

"Fans can be confident that we're going to build this thing the right way, approach it the right way so that the payoff is going to be big long term. We want to win this week, and we want to win the next week, and the next week, and the next week … But we're not going to compromise the way we approach things. And we know when we start winning, the fans will be there and support us. It's such an awesome football city, and we can't wait to make everybody very happy. "

But throw in red-shirt freshman left tackle Jonah Williams leading a quartet of starters from the 2019 draft and defensive stars Jessie Bates III and Sam Hubbard from the class of 2018 and the Bengals' architectural plans running deep into the 2020s have begun to rise before the Nov. 8 bye. They think it's a group that can make people very happy.

Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin and his staff hit it big when three players from a particular class end up as long-term regulars.

Now with the remaining two '20 picks waiting in the wings for what they project as potentially starting careers in Kansas tackle Hakeem Adeniji and Purdue linebacker Markus Bailey, they're looking at dwarfing the take from the 2009-2012 drafts that gave rise to two division titles and five straight play-off berths under head coach Marvin Lewis. Or the 1985-87 haul book-ended by Boomer Esiason in 1984 and Ickey Woods in 1988 that gave you the 1988 AFC champs.

"It's about time they had changing of the guard there. They had a terrific run for a long time under Marvin Lewis," says Pro Football Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian. "It's time to bring in new blood and it looks like Duke has done his usual good job bringing that about."

When the Bengals began preparing for the Browns game Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), there were 51 players on NFL rosters that were Bengals draft picks. With 52, only Baltimore, a team that has won 17 of its last 18 regular-season games, had more. Polian, who drafted Peyton Manning 22 years ago, gives Burrow another year to start comparing. But no question, he says, they've got the centerpiece they need in an overhaul.

"Burrow has been terrific," says Polian, now a NFL Sirius Radio host. "The thing you want from the outset is a guy that will come in and compete and is not overwhelmed and that's clearly the case."

When the Bengals took Burrow No. 1 and Higgins No. 2, it mirrored Lewis' 2011 re-boot of taking wide receiver A.J. Green first and quarterback Andy Dalton second. They are still the only rookie quarterback and wide receiver tandem ever that has 20 touchdown passes with 1,000 yards receiving, according to Elias. But with Burrow on pace to throw 16 touchdown passes and Higgins looking at 904 yards, they're giving them a good run to join them.

While Burrow's pace is just 62 yards shy of Andrew Luck's 2012 rookie passing record of 4,312 yards, Higgins is trending to have a better rookie year than Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh combined (557 in 2001) and Carl Pickens (266 in 1992), and has guys like Green (1,057 in 2011) and Eddie Brown (942 in 1985) in his sights. Higgins has the third-most yards among rookie receivers (a former Burrow target at LSU, Justin Jefferson, leads with 537) and his line of 22 catches for 339 yards and two TDs is an interesting comp to Green's first six games of 453 yards on 29 catches and four TDs.

"Tee is playing faster because he's gaining a bunch of confidence," says Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. "Joe is throwing the ball with more confidence because he knows where those guys are going to be and it's a part of the process. Especially for two young players like Tee and Joe that didn't get a ton of work in the offseason together. You can never simulate the game reps and they're getting them now."

They're also getting a lift defensively from their quicksilver rookie backers. Wilson, the third-rounder from Wyoming, leads all rookie linebackers with two interceptions, and Davis-Gaither, the fourth-rounder from Appalachian State, has logged the first sack of any kind by a Bengals rookie linebacker since Vontaze Burfict eight years ago. One more and ADG becomes the first Bengals rookie linebacker with multiple sacks at 1.5 since David Pollack, the first-round pick of the ill-fated 2005 class.

"They've got a bright future. They've got a knack for the football," says safety Vonn Bell. "They are making plays out there, and I'm extremely excited for them. I just want them to keep on going and keep on growing each and every week and know what you did last week doesn't matter for this week, so just keep on going and keep on growing."

While Burrow has taken all but one of the snaps and Higgins has played 80 percent the last two weeks, Wilson (30 percent) and ADG (nearly 40 percent) are being used mostly on passing downs, where Bell likes what he sees.

"Their natural instincts," Bell said. "Just always find themselves in plays and making tackles, even we had a couple zero calls and Logan popped out and made it. They got crazy ball skills, and we've got two bigs right now playing well, always being in the right time, right place. Youth playing well."

You also have to go back to '05 and the second round to find a rookie linebacker that had multiple interceptions with Odell Thurman's five. Even Wilson's downers have got them encouraged. Last Sunday he got beat by tight end Jack Doyle for the Colts' final touchdown when Wilson got picked off in the middle of the field, but Doyle's diving catch and Philip Rivers' ridiculous throw obscured Wilson's ability to catch up with Doyle.

And with the mind of mettle they knew they were getting from a three-time college captain.

"I'm just putting my head down and working. I'm not worried about whatever my role was every week," Wilson says. "I'm going to take that to heart and do my best whenever I'm out on the field to make plays and help the team be successful. Whatever my role is is whatever it will be and I'll just continue to work hard and put my head down." 

 What has the Bengals so encouraged is what looks to be their most productive rookie class of all-time is doing it without the benefit of off-season workouts or any pre-season games. What was called the Captain Obvious Draft back in April (six of the seven picks were captains and Higgins most likely would have been if he stayed at Clemson) seems to have paid off.

Polian, whose son coaches at Notre Dame, knows all about Kareem, the Bengals' fifth-rounder that began impressing the coaches as soon as he started practicing late at training camp after a rehab stint. Last Sunday he played a season-high 40 percent and while he got beat on the edge on a big run, he also made some nice plays in a run game the Bengals held Indy to 59 yards.

"At Notre Dame (he was) very well thought of as well as being a damn good prospect," says Polian of Kareem, which goes for the rest of the class.

"Not only (are they talented), but I'm sure they're bright kids, they are able to pick it up and play well without preseason and OTAs. They're on schedule. Burrow makes everybody around him better. There is still work to do. Particularly on the offensive line I would think.

"But that said, they're headed in the right direction. It would be interesting to see how this goes the rest of the way because of no OTAs, no preseason. At what point do they hit the wall? We'll find out."

Burrow sets this draft apart, of course. In 2005, Pollack and Thurman started next to each other at linebacker, wide receiver Chris Henry had six touchdowns to go with 31 catches and wide receiver Tab Perry had a change-the-game kick return in the game that won the division in Pittsburgh. But that class didn't have the QB or the total production of this one.

The '06 crop also didn't have the QB and it didn't break into the starting lineup or regular rotations until the next season. Except for first-round pick Justin Smith, a defensive end, the '01 class barely got on the field as rookies.

And while the '11 Green-Dalton draft had the QB, made history and fourth-round pick Clint Boling started at left guard on Opening Day, Boling only started three games that season on the way to 109 in his career and no other picks ever made an impact.

"Burrow is the real deal," says Charley Casserly, a former GM and current NFL Network analyst. "You have to be happy if you're the Bengals. They've got some pieces there."

No one is happy at 1-4-1. But kids like Higgins are still hungry and he senses his class is a special one.

"I just feel like we came in hungry," Higgins says. "Guys wanted to come in and impress the coaches and the organization. They drafted us for a reason, and I feel like that's what we came here to do. We've just got to keep it up."