Recent day three draft steals for the Bengals
By Jack Lane
The Bengals are known for finding talented prospects who fall late in the draft. Let’s explore some of the best recent finds the Bengals have made.
The Bengals have been one of the best drafting teams in recent years, in no small part due to head coach Marvin Lewis’ keen eye for talent. What separates the Bengals from many other teams isn’t their top draft picks, either. In fact, the Bengals first-round picks since 2010 have been hit or miss. What the Bengals excel at is finding value on Day 3 of NFL Draft. For the purposes of evaluating the Bengals’ drafts, let’s look at what they have done on Day 3 since 2010.
The Bengals selected defensive tackle Geno Atkins in the fourth round out of Georgia in 2010. As it turns out, the 2010 draft was one of the Bengals stronger drafts, netting three Pro Bowlers. Atkins was still the best player in that class, though. In his rookie season, Atkins rotated with veteran DTs Domata Peko, Tank Johnson, and Pat Sims, compiling 16 combined tackles and 3 sacks. He showed enough in 2010 to earn a starting job next season, and he took off from there. Atkins hit 47 tackles and 7.5 sacks in 2011 before exploding in 2012 for 54 tackles and 12.5 sacks. For a defensive tackle, 12.5 sacks are insane.
Atkins has yet to match that 12.5 sack season from 2012, but he has been a consistent force on the interior. Since then, he has had seasons of 6, 3, 11, 9, and 9 sacks. Save for an ACL tear all the way back in 2013, Atkins has been remarkably healthy, too. He’s the best kind of player: low-risk, high-reward. Atkins’ ridiculous ability to disrupt the line and penetrate the backfield has proven that defensive tackles can be effective pass rushers. Along with Fletcher Cox, Aaron Donald, and maybe a couple other guys, Atkins defines the elite tier of the NFL’s DTs. For a fourth-round pick, Atkins has completely shattered expectations.
A near mirror picks to Geno Atkins, the Bengals selected offensive lineman Clint Boling in the fourth round, also out of Georgia, in 2011. Many heralded Boling as one of the better guards in the draft, but they may not have seen this level of performance coming. Boling has been reliable as they come since the Bengals drafted him. After sitting for a year, Boling has started every game for which he’s been available. Boling was one of the pieces that composed the vaunted Bengals’ O-line back when Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler were still on the team.
Now that they have left, the burden of leading this core has fallen onto Boling’s shoulders. He has stepped up to the task, maintaining a PFF grade around the top 20 most seasons. Going forward, Boling is one of the only reliable pieces protecting Andy Dalton and Joe Mixon. For the second year in a row, the Bengals knocked their fourth round pick out of the park.
The Bengals selected safety George Iloka in the fifth round out of Boise St. in 2012. Iloka was one of the better safeties in the 2012 draft, but slipped to the fifth round (notice a trend?). Iloka backed up Taylor Mays at strong safety his first season, hardly ever seeing the field. He earned the starting job in 2013, though, and never looked back. Iloka has never been a ball hawk – his career high in interceptions is 3.
However, he has shown excellent field awareness and tackling. Iloka is usually among the Bengals’ tackle leaders, notching 74, 74, and 80 tackles in his last three full seasons. After signing a 5 year, $30 million extension in 2016, Iloka has maintained his steady play. He’s graded out as average in PFF the last two seasons. For the third season in a row, the Bengals found a reliable starter on Day 3 of the draft in Iloka.
The Bengals selected quarterback A.J. McCarron in the fifth round out of Alabama in 2014. McCarron did not have a noticeable on-field impact for the Bengals each season, but his role was invaluable. He gave the Bengals security at the QB position even if quarterback Andy Dalton went down. McCarron proved his value in 2015 when Dalton broke his thumb near the end of the year. He led the Bengals to a 2-2 record, but most notably stepped up in the Bengals’ playoff game. Even though the Bengals would go on to lose to the Steelers (sad), McCarron put the team in position to win late in the game. It certainly was not his fault the game slipped through the cracks.
McCarron is now slated to start for the Buffalo Bills. That may not stick for very long depending on what the Bills do in the draft, but it is still remarkable. It’s rare for QBs taken outside of the top ten in the draft to become reliable NFL starters, much less outside the first three rounds. The Bengals found a rare QB gem in McCarron in round 5, even if he’s not still with the team.
The Bengals selected linebacker/defensive end Carl Lawson in the fourth round out of Auburn in 2017. Like many of these other players, Lawson was a highly touted prospect who slipped in the draft. Lawson was an extremely productive college player, and that production transferred very well to the NFL. I wrote about Lawson last week in my 2017 draft grades, but in short, he was one of the best rookies last year. He led all rookies in sacks with 8.5 while playing just about half of the snaps. Even more impressively, Lawson got pressure on the QB on 16.3% of his rushes, ranking fourth in the entire NFL. Lawson looks to be the Bengals pass rush specialist at linebacker going forward, which is an enormous coup for a fourth round pick.