With a loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 16, the Cincinnati Bengals have assured themselves of the top overall selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. Being rewarded with the first selection is both a gift and a curse. The prize for finishing with the least amount of wins in the league gives the tiger-striped franchise a chance to select the cream of the crop of football’s next generation this upcoming spring. However, the Bengals have been known to blow their Draft picks in the past. Could 2020 be the year where the Bengals finally turn misfortune into bonafide hope?
To date, that answer has been an emphatic no.
Struggling is not new for NFL franchises in the state of Ohio. Both Cincinnati and Cleveland can share significant tales regarding their respective merits of futility. However, with the top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Bengals have the golden ticket to reverse their on-field misfortunes. From 2011–2015, Cincy has strung together a .500 or better regular season record. The Bengals made seven playoff appearances from 2000 to present. Unfortunately, they never made it past the wildcard round in any of those outings.
With a single game left in the 2019 NFL regular season, The Bengals sport a lowly 1–14 record entering the final week of play. For their part, the team doesn’t appear to be overjoyed by their efforts. First-year head coach Zac Taylor stated, “If there’s any competitive juices in you whatsoever, you can’t go out on the field not trying your best to win the game.” The losses have piled up, despite the Bengals sporting narrow margins of defeat. Apart from a handful of blowouts, the team fights down to the wire in most contests, including their Week 16 38–35 loss to the Dolphins. Yet, with a measly one in the win column, moral victories won’t resonate with the Bengals and their fans.
Cincinnati can’t endure any further disappointments. That is what makes the NFL draft so appealing: The ability for a team to fix deficiencies and fortify strengths with young, fascinating talent. As you can imagine, a team with the Bengals’ record has plenty of holes that need to be patched on the roster. Cincinnati has the pick of the litter when it comes to adding talent to their roster. Perhaps they would like to usher in a new quarterback under center such as LSU’s Joe Burrow, who many project as the best QB prospect in the 2020 class. They could address their need for a consistent pass rush by selecting defensive end Chase Young of Ohio State.
The Bengals could also use that first overall pick for leverage. With so many needs on both offense and defense, it wouldn’t be out of the question to dangle the pick to trade for multiple picks in subsequent rounds. With each selection in a given draft assigned a certain value, no pick in any draft is more valuable than the first overall pick. Which means the Bengals go from afterthoughts to getting the upgrade to first class.
Cincinnati has held the first overall selection in three different drafts (1994, 1995, 2003). In 1994, the team selected Ohio State defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, who spent three quiet seasons with the Bengals from 1994-’97. Wilkinson would start 59 games and add 25 sacks during his tenure. In 1995, the Bengals took Penn State running back Ki-Jana Carter. In his four seasons in Cincy, Carter rushed for 747 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging 3.3 yards per carry. The Bengals took USC quarterback Carson Palmer with the top pick in 2003, who was the catalyst of massive improvement for the franchise. Palmer would spend seven seasons in the Queen City, attending multiple Pro Bowls and leading the Bengals to various playoff appearances during that time. Yet after leading the team to prominence and then sustaining it, Palmer and the Bengals split, each looking to prove they were better without the other.
It didn’t work out for either side. The Bengals have hit yet another putrid rut, and Palmer has been retired from the game for a while. However, now the team has the golden ticket to better their roster. For Cincinnati, who have been a punchline of the league for decades, it’s a much-needed step towards gaining respect from its 31 peers. Often criticized for their frugality, poor draft selections and meager facilities, the Bengals need to win the 2020 NFL Draft as much as it needs to flip public perception. The owners (the Brown family) are not as meddling as their contemporaries across the league. Yet their penny-pinching tactics — not allowing employees to expense long-distance trips among other cost-saving measures — leads you to wonder if they’re content just to say they own a team rather than produce a winner.
We’ve already witnessed the Bengals overcome poor perception. The Bengals found themselves with a roster full of talent, many with considerable character concerns. Adam “Pac-Man” Jones and Chris Henry were just a couple of names that often found themselves grabbing headlines on ESPN and TMZ not long after a game had concluded. When the Bengals evaluate the next crop of stars during the draft evaluation process, finding high-character prospects will be just as important as individuals who have a high ceiling of potential.
Upon the conclusion of Week 17, the Cincinnati Bengals will be on the clock. Time will tell if a top pick and influx of talent can cure the wave of disappointment that has engulfed the Queen City. In the best interest of the franchise, it would be beneficial to look in the mirror to do some self-reflection. Carving out an identity and instilling belief within the franchise are the first steps in the reclamation process. With each draft, hope springs anew. Come April, we’ll have to see if a Tiger can truly change their stripes.