From draft to free agency, Bengals focus on adding culture changers

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CINCINNATI -- A couple of common threads started to emerge as the Cincinnati Bengals filled out their 2020 NFL draft class.

Four of their final five picks were made on defense -- three linebackers and a defensive end. A cursory look at their respective bios and post-draft interviews with Bengals coaches revealed each pick had leadership traits that were tangible -- all four served as a team captain for their college program.

By the end of the draft on April 25, it was clear the Bengals weren't just filling voids on the roster. They were drafting for an attribute of need.

Finding young leaders and establishing the culture second-year coach Zac Taylor is looking for has been paramount during Cincinnati's rebuild. That emphasis didn't change during free agency and the draft.

"You're looking for guys that are going to be consistent day to day," Taylor said on April 25 at the end of the draft. "[Guys who] are going to give their best effort, but also challenge those around them and not accept anything that's less than somebody's best. We're not just trying to win games, we're trying to win championships."

That's a lofty statement for a team that not only is coming off the NFL's worst record but also has the league's longest drought without a playoff victory (1991). But even in the midst of last year's 2-14 campaign that got them the No. 1 overall draft pick, which they used on quarterback Joe Burrow, finding the right players for a long-term culture was a priority.

The first notable shift occurred after Week 10, when the Bengals cut linebacker Preston Brown, who signed a three-year contract in the previous offseason. Brown's release came one day after Taylor was critical of the entire unit following a loss to the Baltimore Ravens that dropped Cincinnati to 0-9.

"Someone needs to step up and be a leader there [at linebacker]," Taylor said on Nov. 11. "We've been waiting on that and shuffling the lineup around waiting on someone to step up and be consistent and be a leader in that room."

But if there was one positive to come from last season, it was that the culture the Bengals sought was starting to take shape.

In Week 16, the Bengals scored 23 points in the final 6 minutes, 11 seconds -- capped by a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tyler Eifert on the final play of regulation -- to force overtime in a game against the Miami Dolphins, when a loss sealed the No. 1 overall pick. Cincinnati lost 38-35, but the effort reflected where the team stood at the end of the season.

"People might say I'm stupid -- we've only won one game -- to say that, but I really believe we're building the right mindset and culture in here," Eifert said before the season-finale win over Cleveland, his last with the Bengals before he signed into a two-year contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Taylor and the front office tried to continue to build on that progress. In free agency, the Bengals shelled out more than $145 million. Six new defensive players -- including key acquisitions defensive tackle D.J. Reader, cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Vonn Bell -- came from playoff teams.

"That's what you're trying to bring here," Bengals veteran safety Shawn Williams told ESPN. "You can't have that here if you've never had anyone that's been a part of something like that."

Cincinnati's top draft picks are also coming off strong 2019 seasons. Three of the top four selections -- Burrow, wide receiver Tee Higgins and linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither -- played for college teams that won conference titles. Burrow and LSU beat Higgins' Clemson squad to win the College Football Playoff.

Last year, it was easy to see all the things Burrow did well in winning the Heisman Trophy by a wide margin. But Burrow said his leadership is the best attribute he's bringing to the Bengals.

"I've always been really, really good at bringing everybody together to form a common goal, and I think my work ethic kind of permeates throughout the team," Burrow said after the draft.

As much as the Bengals need players who have the on-field talent to lift the franchise from the depths of the AFC North, having players who fit the culture is also necessary.

"Ultimately, you have to think long-term with that championship mindset," Taylor said. "People that are willing to work harder than any team in the league. We feel like we've added the right people."