Bengals’ 2001 NFL Draft Was The Greatest In Team History

Aug 12, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; A general view of Paul Brown Stadium during a preseason NFL football game with the Minnesota Vikings and the Cincinnati Bengals. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 12, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; A general view of Paul Brown Stadium during a preseason NFL football game with the Minnesota Vikings and the Cincinnati Bengals. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports /

Selecting four Pro Bowl players in the 2001 Draft, the Cincinnati Bengals set in motion a culture change that still resonates today.

The 2001 NFL draft was a crowning achievement in Cincinnati Bengals history.  A noon Saturday start, the draft featured 31 NFL teams as the Texans wouldn’t enter the league until the following season.  In a packed Madison Square Garden, with Chris Berman on the mic, the intrigue was already building.  The San Diego Chargers traded the first overall pick to the Atlanta Falcons for the rights to QB Michael Vick.  The Chargers came away with two Hall of Famers in LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees.  Amongst all the hype, though, the Bengals quietly built a foundation.  The core pulled them out of a decade-long culture of league-wide laughter.

Justin Smith

Round 1, Pick 4

With the third overall pick in the 1999 NFL draft, the Bengals swung and missed on Oregon QB Akili Smith.  With a small body of work, the athletic boom or bust pick ended his Bengal career with a resounding thud.  The following draft, Cincinnati selected Peter Warrick with the fourth pick.  The electrifying WR out of Florida State came with the promise of a high ceiling and a reason for hope.  As Warrick did put up a somewhat respectable season in 2003, he never sniffed the level of play that could match his hype.

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After two consecutive top-5 failures, the Bengals came out of the first round of the 2001 draft safe and secure.  With the fourth pick, Cincinnati selected Justin Smith, the All-American defensive end from Missouri.  Lacking flair or freakish athleticism, Smith was a model of consistency.  Throughout his first 6 seasons, Smith recorded no less than 5 sacks and 60 tackles.

The defensive end never received national recognition from the league while wearing Bengal stripes.  Following his signing with the 49ers in 2008, he made five Pro Bowls and was named an All-Pro three times.  The statistics and effectiveness were largely identical for his Bengals and 49ers seasons.

Smith played an integral role in changing both the draft and team culture for Cincinnati.  He proved the organization could effectively select talent in the top of the draft.  Smith became a leader and key member of the 2005 roster that ended the 15-year playoff appearance drought.

Chad Johnson

Round 2, Pick 36

Chad Johnson will go down as an all-time great Cincinnati Bengal.  The fringe Hall of Fame candidate currently holds the club record for receiving, as well as the record for unabashed celebration.  Arguably, Johnson’s greatest contribution was the confidence he exuded.  The result was a lightning rod for a culture change the organization desperately needed.

A bit of an enigmatic presence, the WR’s path to the NFL was anything but conventional.  After bouncing around from colleges and community colleges, Johnson landed at Oregon State following coach Dennis Erickson’s heavy recruitment.  With just one full season of college experience, the Bengals took a gamble on the receiver despite the small sample size.

The rest is history.  Johnson went on the lead the AFC in receiving for four straight seasons, from 2003-2006.  He made five consecutive Pro-Bowls and was named first-team All-Pro four straight times.  In 2006, Johnson led the NFL in receiving, become the first Bengal to achieve the feat.

As the Bengals returned to prominence, Chad Johnson became the face and mouth of the Cincinnati revival. Whatever question marks surrounded Johnson before the draft, the receiver smashed them en route to becoming one of the greatest picks in team history.

Rudi Johnson

Round 4, Pick 100

With Corey Dillon tormenting AFC North defenses, the selection of Rudi Johnson left many around the league puzzled.  A junior college transfer, Johnson only saw one season of D1 football at Auburn as he declared following his junior year.  For his first two professional seasons, the confusion was warranted.  Entering 2003, Johnson had just 17 carries for 67 yards for his career.  As Corey Dillon hobbled through an injury-riddled season, Johnson took control of the backfield.  In a Week 6 victory, Johnson carried 43 times for 182 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Dillon was shown the exit the following offseason.

The sting of losing a player like Dillon didn’t last long.  As the Bengals feature back, Johnson had a three-season run finishing in the top 10 in rushing.  Each season saw the Auburn product finish with at least 1300 yards and 12 touchdowns.  No Bengals running back has touched those statistics since.

Rudi Johnson had an integral role in the 2005 postseason run for the Bengals.  He finished the season with 1458 yards and 12 touchdowns.  His downhill, punishing nature remains a relic of old school backfield power.  Dave Lapham’s shouts of “GO RUDI” will forever echo through the halls of Bengal lore.

T.J. Houshmandzadeh

Round 7, Pick 204

A former college teammate, T.J. Houshmandzadeh largely represented everything Chad Johnson didn’t.  The wide receiver was taller, heavier, slower, and quieter.  Conversely, Houshmanzadeh was a more technical route runner, a better blocker and far more physical.

Following a Week 4 injury to Peter Warrick in 2004, the seventh-round pick was thrust into the starting lineup.  He finished with 73 catches for 978 yards and 4 touchdowns, better than any season Warrick saw with the Bengals.  Warrick did not play for Cincinnati again.

While never eclipsing 1200 yards in a season, once Houshmandzadeh became a starter he never finished a season with less than 900 yards. Robin to Johnson’s Batman, Housmanzadeh provided a consistent second option to an explosive offense that needed it.  In 2007 he was named to a Pro Bowl after finishing with 112 catches, 1143 yards, and 12 touchdowns.

Next: Defense With An Attitude

Following their 1990 playoff loss, the Cincinnati Bengals embarked on a 15-year winning season and playoff drought.  The organization was a punchline.  Now, every season that doesn’t result in a playoff win is viewed as a poor Cincinnati effort.  A huge factor in the cultural paradigm shift was the success of the 2001 NFL draft.  16 years later, it’s time for the Bengals to pull the rabbit out of the hat again.