The Bengals' trend of poor drafts has reversed itself in a major way, however, over the past three seasons. In fact, the Bengals just might be in the midst of consecutive draft classes that could form the nucleus of a team that wins several Super Bowls.
It's happened only a few times in the history of the NFL. With the NFL geared toward creating parity, few teams have the desirable draft positioning to pull off multiple years in which Pro Bowl caliber players are selected. Two such runs that stand out involve the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s and the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s.
The Dallas Cowboys under Tom Landry and Tex Schramm had become "America's Team." If any team had consistently benefited from the NFL Draft, it was the Cowboys. After trading up to the number one spot in 1977 to select Tony Dorsett, Dallas went through a decade of some pretty lean drafts that left the franchise a shell of its former self.
The turnaround began in 1988 when the Cowboys got Michael Irvin and Ken Norton, Jr. with their first two picks. The following year Dallas got their quarterback with the number one overall selection, Troy Aikman. They also got four other starters with their picks in the next five rounds. In 1990, they got Emmit Smith with the 17th overall selection. Then in 1991 and 1992, even though they were now starting to show success on the field and slide down on the draft board, the Cowboys had one of the greatest two year hauls in NFL history.
Twelve starters would come out of those two drafts, solidifying Dallas' domination of the 1990s in the NFL. In a five year period, the Cowboys added the core of their offense with three Hall of Famers and almost all of the players who would start during their Super Bowl run.
Probably the greatest draft run ever came from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Art Rooney's Steelers were an NFL also-ran. Their record prior to the 1970 NFL Draft made Mike Brown look like George Halas. Only once in the franchise's history had they even qualified for the NFL playoffs. So when Chuck Noll was hired in 1969 and the team took Terry Bradshaw with the number one overall pick in 1970, Pittsburgh was going on almost 40 years of NFL futility.
In addition to Bradshaw, the 1970 draft got the Steelers Mel Blount. In 1971, they added five starters including Jack Ham and Ernie Holmes. The 1972 draft was a little weak for the middle round choosing Steelers, but they added running back Franco Harris. 1973 was also just average for Pittsburgh.
The Steelers' 1974 draft, however, was a turning point in the franchise's history. It's widely regarded as the single best draft class taken by a team in the history of the NFL. It's not as if Pittsburgh hit on every one of their picks that year. But in the first five rounds, the Steelers drafted four Hall of Famers. Lynn Swann was drafted first out of USC. His counterpart at WR, John Stallworth would be taken in round three. In between those two, the Steelers got linebacker Jack Lambert in the second round. The fifth round saw Pittsburgh take Wisconsin center Mike Webster.
Of the four, only Swann was an All-American caliber player. Stallworth played at tiny Alabama A&M and Lambert was at Kent State. The Steeler scouts did their homework and the rest is history. In five years worth of drafts the Steelers grabbed eight future Hall of Famers and the bedrock for what was arguably the most dominant team of all time, winning four Super Bowls in five years.
Can the Bengals replicate these prodigious runs? Possibly.
The Bengals have already grabbed four Pro Bowl appearances from the 2010 and 2011 drafts: Jermaine Gresham, Geno Atkins, Andy Dalton and AJ Green have all made the trip to Hawaii. Already six starters have come from those two classes with the potential for more if players like Clint Boling, Dontay Moch and Robert Sands ultimately pan out.
The 2012 draft was almost unanimously given an "A" by draft experts. It's way too early to tell, but this is the draft class that has some potential to be among the best ever. Of their 10 picks at least six should be competing for starting jobs this season and beyond.
It's not over yet, but the Cincinnati Bengals certainly appear to be on the way toward reversing their losing ways.
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