Tuesday we continue our week-long series on the top AFC North draft classes of the past decade.
Here is a look at the Cincinnati Bengals:
No. 3: Class of 2006
Analysis: Following the first playoff appearance under head coach Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati found three starters in the 2006 draft. Joseph, Whitworth and Peko are all solid players who later contributed to Cincinnati's playoff run and division sweep in 2009. The Bengals locked up Peko and Whitworth to long-term extensions and are negotiating Joseph, although it appears he's likely leaving Cincinnati for free agency. The Bengals also drafted third-round defensive end Frostee Rucker, who has been a backup in the rotation the past four seasons. This might not count for the Bengals, but in 2006 they picked up linebacker Ahmad Brooks in the supplemental draft. Brooks didn't do much in Cincinnati, where he started just seven games. But he's recorded 11 sacks the past two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.
No. 2: Class of 2003
Analysis: Coming off a 2-14 record the year prior, the Bengals owned the top pick of every round in the first year under Lewis. Cincinnati naturally hit big, particularly early. The Bengals took Palmer and Steinbach with back-to-back picks, and they were great additions during Cincinnati's first playoff run under Lewis in 2005. The Bengals gave Palmer a long-term extension and made him the franchise building block. They let Steinbach walk, which hurt the offensive line for several seasons. Steinbach signed with the division rival Cleveland Browns in 2007 and is having a good stint there. Johnson also was a quality find in the fourth round. He was a good blocking fullback for six seasons with the Bengals before weight issues caught up with him. A sleeper from the 2003 class was former third-round pick Kelley Washington, who didn't pan out as a top-flight receiver but was a good special-teams contributor during various stops in Cincinnati, New England and Baltimore.
No. 1: Class of 2001
Analysis: Without a doubt this is the Bengals' best draft class of the past 10 years. In fact, Cincinnati's 2001 draft is in strong consideration as one of the top drafts in the division for the past decade, which we will reveal in the AFC North blog on Friday. The Bengals landed four longtime starters, and what's impressive is they did it from the top (Smith and Ochocinco), middle (Johnson) and bottom (Houshmandzadeh) of the draft. Even though Lewis didn't join the team for another two years, this class was the start of Cincinnati turning things around. Lewis was able to hit the ground running in 2003 after adding Steinbach and Palmer to this foundation. At one time Cincinnati was considered the team of the future with this young nucleus that included the 2001 and 2003 draft classes. But after the Bengals' wild-card loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2005, this group fell apart. Palmer and Ochocinco are the only remaining players from Cincinnati's top two drafts of the past decade, and both of their futures are in doubt this offseason. Palmer has demanded a trade and threatened to retire, while Ochocinco, now 33, could be moved in the final year of his contract.
On Wednesday we will take an in-depth look at the top draft classes of the Baltimore Ravens.