Big Wide Line

One of the favorite pastimes of Bengals fans—many of whom identify as members of an understandably bitter and jaded persuasion—is ripping on the front office. Mike Brown is the undisputed crowned king of this activity, but the longtime role of second banana has largely been assumed by the scouting department (or lack thereof). It doesn’t take much effort for one to peruse through previous drafts, particularly in the 1990s, and be reminded of the putrid selections made with high-end picks. David Klingler, John Copeland, Big Daddy Wilkinson, Reinard Wilson, Akili Smith, Chris Perry. It is a litany of horrors, with the occasional bad luck tossed in for good measure (Ki-Jana Carter, David Pollack).

Beyond that, the franchise has consistently been hammered for its scouting department being understaffed, the numerous wayward decisions a result of lacking man power as much as lacking brain power. But while fans and analysts and armchair quarterbacks have plenty of reasons to disparage the Bengals’ scouting when it’s bad, it is equally unfair not to praise them for the times they get it right.

Reports of the Bengals beefing up their scout staff have begun to flesh themselves out in the past couple seasons. Nabbing Geno Atkins in the fourth round of 2010 is on its way to being one of the greatest steals of this decade. Taking A.J. Green fourth overall in 2011 may have seemed obvious at the time, but the team has whiffed on choices in that position before, and waiting patiently to scoop up Andy Dalton in the second round was both gutsy and smart. Yet the most recent example that I and everyone else following the team got a tad flustered about was the selection of Kevin Zeitler with the 27th pick this past offseason.

The muted outrage and confusion among fans and analysts wasn’t so much a knock against Zeitler—he was a highly touted prospect—but rather uncertainty because of who was passed over in his stead. The team originally owned the 21st overall selection, but traded down during the draft, ostensibly passing on Stanford product David DeCastro. DeCastro was widely graded as the top guard in the draft, a position at which the Bengals were in dire need of some assistance. But when the team made a deal to drop from 21 to 27, DeCastro went to the Steelers at 24. The team not only looked foolish for passing on a can’t-miss prospect at a position of need, but also squandered him to a division rival, forcing fans and defenders alike to be reminded of our mistake twice a season for the foreseeable future.

Bengals brass assured the general public that they had Zeitler ranked as high as DeCastro (despite the fact that few others felt the same), even claiming to have considered him with the team’s initial 21st pick. But regardless of how respected Zeitler was coming out of Wisconsin, the fact that it was the Bengals passing on DeCastro brought inherent skepticism to the team’s potential oversight.

And yet things are not always as they first appear. The sample size for Zeitler is only at nine games, but when you examine how successful he’s become after getting plugged in at right guard from the very beginning, it’s relatively clear that the Bengal scout gurus were impressively prescient on this one. Even in spite of the injuries suffered by DeCastro and fellow 2012 draftee Cordy Glenn, Zeitler has been a rock on Cincinnati’s imposing offensive line, earning high marks from the national media and stat nerds at Pro Football Focus, as well as sizably separating himself from the rest of his drafted peers.

You’ll rarely get complaints about taking shots at the Bengals front office, but I’m not too proud to state otherwise, either. At times, it becomes obvious why “they” are making the decisions and the rest of us are just sitting around talking about it. And while it’s still early, Kevin Zeitler has definitely reminded us of that.

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