NFL Draft season is a good time to look back at previous drafts. The 2001 draft had a massive impact on the Bengals franchise and helped bring it back to relevance.
The Bengals are not viewed as anything close to a model franchise today, but things were a lot worse about 20 years ago. From 1991-2002, Cincinnati posted a .500 record just once and had eight double digit loss seasons.
As strange as it sounds now, most folks associate the Bengals exiting laughing stock territory with the hiring of Marvin Lewis and the drafting of Carson Palmer. Those two things got the franchise over the hump and back in the playoffs. Really though, the seeds were planted on draft day in 2001. The franchise that had high profile draftees like Ki-Jana Carter and David Klingler flame out for one reason or another drafted four future Pro Bowlers in seven total draft picks in 2001.
Here is a look at each along with their contributions to the 2005 Bengals. More on that year later.
Justin Smith- In terms of accolades, the former Missouri pass rusher’s best NFL years were in San Francisco starting in 2008. However, Smith was a day one starter in Cincinnati after being drafted fourth overall in 2001. He was a rare blend of size, speed, and simply understanding how to get to the quarterback. Smith racked up 43.5 sacks in Cincinnati, including six in 2005. A first round pick that panned out was a rarity for the Bengals at the time, but Smith certainly did.
Rudi Johnson- Rudi Johnson was not a household name when he was drafted out of Auburn in the fourth round, but he became one in Cincinnati. The tough hardnosed running back was selected to the 2004 Pro Bowl and rushed for over 1450 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2005.
Chad Johnson- Antics and name changes aside, Chad Johnson was really really good. The six-time Pro Bowler and former second round pick was one of the best wide receivers ever at tight catches near the sideline and did not post less than 87 catches in a season from 2003-2007
T. J. Houshmandzadeh- Johnson’s college teammate and fellow wide receiver is the last noteworthy piece of this stellar draft class. Houshmandzadeh is the kind of seventh round pick every team hopes to get lucky with. Unlike many of his Bengals teammates, Houshmandzadeh did not say or do anything flashy. He just produced, leading the NFL in catches in 2007 and grabbing seven touchdowns on 78 catches in 2005.
The hiring of Lewis in 2003 along with the drafting of a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback in Palmer were the final pieces of the puzzle. The Bengals were ready to contend again. Posting consecutive 8-8 seasons in 2003 and 2004 was a huge accomplishment for the franchise at the time, but 2005 was when things really took off.
With Palmer and the three offensive weapons above, Cincinnati’s offense was almost impossible to fully contain. The Bengals averaged just over 26 points per game, raced to an 11-5 record, won the AFC North and returned to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.
I was a young Cincinnati native in middle school at the time. I had never seen anything like it. People were selling Bengals gear on street corners in the middle of the week. The city had waited so long for this. It was cool to see. People weren’t talking playoffs, they were talking Super Bowl and rightfully so.
Everyone remembers what happened next. Palmer blew out his knee early in the AFC Wild Card game against the Steelers. Never has the air gone out of a stadium so quickly. Pittsburgh went on to win the Super Bowl. Palmer and the Bengals franchise never fully recovered.
With the Bengals still trying to break the same playoff victory drought all these years later, the what ifs of 2005 still haunt. Still, it was great to see the city pumped about football. The first building block of that was the 2001 draft. With losing and justifiable fan unhappiness becoming the norm again, Cincinnati needs another homerun draft in 2019.
Want to read more about Cincinnati’s offseason? Be sure to check out all of our Bengals coverage on Stripe Hype!
"2019 Full Two Round NFL Mock NFL Draft: Cincinnati Bengals"