CINCINNATI -- It doesn't matter whom the Bengals draft in the first round.
The most important thing is this: He has to play and play effectively starting in September. Nothing else matters.
The position he plays doesn't matter, really. You win with your best players.
And you usually get your best players in the first round of any draft. Lately, the Bengals aren't doing so hot with that. And lately, they've been losing a lot of games.
But by and large, if you don't win at the top of a draft, it's hard to win games. Whomever you take in Round One has to play immediately. The NFL and its rookie salary structure demands it.
By collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association, first-round-drafted rookies get contracts no longer than four years. The team holds a fifth-year extension, if it chooses to do so. Bonus money is predicated largely on where a player is drafted. Yearly salaries in the four years of a player's rookie contract won't break any NFL team's bank.
But after that initial four-year contract, things start to get expensive for NFL front offices. If a drafted rookie has completed four or more years of service to his team (unless the team declines to pick up that fifth-year option for its first-round pick), he can then become an unrestricted free agent.
On the open market, anyone with a modicum of talent is going to make a lot of money. Immediate impact is what every NFL team needs to look for in a first-round draft pick in the new age of professional football. And the Bengals have struggled with that.
The Bengals drafted wide receiver John Ross at No. 9 in the 2017 draft. His season turned out to be a giant whiff. He arrived here hurt, got hurt and along the way managed to fumble, run a wrong route at a key moment and got hurt again. He also seemed to make his head coach mad a lot.
A year before Ross, the Bengals took cornerback William Jackson III with their first-round pick. He seemed to be a default selection, after the Bengals were outmaneuvered on draft day in their quest for a wide receiver (why Ross happened last year). Jackson had a really nice second season. He was one of the few corners who could actually defend the Steelers' Antonio Brown. But he missed his entire rookie season after getting hurt in training camp.
Prior to that, the 2015 draft was painful. Cedric Ogbuehi was the pick. He's shaping up to be one of the all-time first-round "whiffs." Intent on replacing Andrew Whitworth at left tackle (and what a solid idea that was), the Bengals drafted Ogbuehi just four months after major knee surgery. They didn't expect much from him in his rookie year. They still had Whitworth. They didn't get much from Ogbuehi his rookie year, nor any year since. He has been benched, moved to right tackle and, with the arrival of Cordy Glenn from Buffalo, appears to be heading to the bench again.
When Darqueze Dennard was taken in the first round of the 2014 draft, we were told that he was the most aggressive cornerback in the entire draft, someone who could play "nose to nose" with a wide receiver.
Maybe he'll do that someday.
Gaining traction has been hard for Dennard. He had no starts as a rookie, just 12 in his time here. The 2017 season was by far his best campaign, with 85 tackles and a couple of interceptions.
Dre Kirkpatrick arrived in 2012 with a lot of hype from his time at Alabama. He also arrived hurt and played just five games as a rookie. He really didn't become a full-fledged starter until 2015. He's good now. But he started a disturbing trend of first-round picks contributing little in their rookie seasons.
In the last five drafts, only Tyler Eifert – the team’s 2013 first-round pick – has had an immediate impact. He caught a couple of touchdown passes his rookie season and earned 445 receiving yards. He became Andy Dalton's "comfort blanket."
But Eifert hasn't been able to stay on the field. Because of injuries, Eifert has played in less than half of the regular-season games he has been eligible to play.
Hindsight, of course, is always 20-20. The Bengals passed on three future Pro Bowl players when they took Kirkpatrick in 2012. The Chargers selected linebacker Melvin Ingram. The Patriots drafted defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower right after the Bengals took Kirkpatrick.
Desperate for offensive line help a year ago, the Bengals instead took a wide receiver, Ross. They passed on left tackles Garrett Boles, who went to the Denver Broncos, and Cam Robinson, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Both started for their teams last season, with Boles named to the Professional Football Writers of America "All Rookie Team."
Winning football teams are assembled in a lot of different ways. Most rosters will have some big-dollar free agents. Most also will have some mid-to-late-round "bargains" that the talking heads will drool over during the draft.
Almost all have first-round draft picks who proved they were worth the investment. The Bengals have several of those.
But in the current NFL world, you have to have players who make an impact immediately because the clock is ticking.
Now to some random thoughts on this random Thursday:
- If I'm Reds General Manager Dick Williams, I'm immediately doing an audit of my scouting staff before this year's draft. In fact, I may look to bring in a "draft ombudsman," someone with a fresh pair of eyes on this year's talent pool. For the third year in a row, the Reds will draft in the top 10. This year it's fifth overall. While the past two first-round selections look good, the Reds can't afford a whiff now. Identify the top 10 candidates for that fifth overall selection. Then hire someone from outside of the Reds' organization and have that person do an independent analysis. There is something clogging up the pipeline that runs from the Reds minor league system to the major league level. Williams should start with this suggestion IMHO and then do a "deep dive" into who is coaching his minor league players and what they're instructing. The firing of Bryan Price offers a golden opportunity to fix a ship that has been listing for the last five years.
- Dusty Baker -- miss him yet?
- I really like what I've seen from the Reds' 2012 first-round pick, Jesse Winker. Winker has speed, handles the bat well and acquits himself well in the field. Their 2013 first rounder, Phil Ervin, and 2014 first-round pick, Alex Blandino? Not so much ...
- Has Pete Rose had one day of peace since being summoned to meet with then-MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti in the spring of 1989? Rose has brought a lot on himself in the last 30 years. But isn't there some sort of beauty in living out the rest of your life in anonymity? Just asking for a friend ...
- If LeBron James decides to "take his talents" elsewhere after this season, the Cleveland Cavaliers won't win 25 games next season. The Cavaliers look like James and a "bunch of guys named Fred." And that's giving all due respect to anyone named Fred ...
- I believe, in the strongest sense, that any form of sexual harassment in any walk of life personal, professional or otherwise is intolerable, and those who engage in it should be dealt with swiftly and strictly. I also strongly believe that everyone should be compensated fairly for any job they hold. If what is being alleged in this lawsuit is true, aside from whatever court ruling is issued, every NFL team from owner on down should be sent to behavior training. But an honest question here: If NFL teams decided to stop using cheerleaders at their games, would you care?
- If he were alive today, the lead singer with this group would be 74. But Cuba Gooding Sr. left this Earth just a little more than a year ago. If you close your eyes and listen to Gooding Sr., you will hear his son, actor Cuba Gooding Jr. of the "show me the money" fame. The Main Ingredient were Gooding Sr., Tony Silvester and Luther Simmons. The group was formed in the Harlem section of New York City. And when the original lead singer died, Gooding Sr. was recruited to replace him. This was his first hit as the group's lead voice.
- And Cuba Gooding Sr. hit it out of the proverbial park. The song was co-written by Rudy Clark, a mailman by day. Clark wrote "Good Lovin'," a hit for the Young Rascals, and "Got My Mind Set On You," which George Harrison covered and turned into a big hit in the '80s. If you ever watch the 2003 movie "Radio," in which Cuba Gooding Jr. stars, there is one sequence where he is listening to his radio and this song is playing. Gooding Sr. and his wife had four children, including Gooding Jr. They divorced in 1974 but remarried in 1995. Gooding Sr. was found dead in his car in Los Angeles on April 20, 2017, just seven days shy of his 73rd birthday. He would have been 74 on Friday. This song is the ultimate ode to love. "And now you cry, but when you do, next time around, someone cries for you." Everybody plays the fool, sometimes ... right?