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Green With Envy

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Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images
Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

After years – if not decades – of misfires and bad personnel decisions, the Cincinnati Bengals have emerged as one of the best drafting teams in recent years. When players exceed (or at least play up to the level of) their draft slot, teams can have a numbers hit their prime about the same time. The case can even be made that no team has done a better job drafting over the last three years than the Bengals – nine of their projected 2013 starters have been drafted since 2010. Three of them have already made two Pro Bowls and two are already considered among the best at their respective positions, leaving Cincinnati in a position to remain competitive over the next several years.

The following is a list of the Bengals’ top five players under 25 years of age; the number in parentheses by each player’s name is their age as of press time:

A Cut Above

WR A.J. Green (24)

To get a sense of how dominant Green has been thus far in his NFL career, understand that he ranks second all-time after two seasons behind Marques Colston in receptions (162), sixth in yards (2,407) and 12th in receiving touchdowns (18) – numbers slightly better (they tied in receiving scores) than what Larry Fitzgerald produced during the 2004 and 2005 seasons (in one fewer game). He’s also ahead of the pace set by the player he is often compared to (Calvin Johnson) and there is simply no reason to believe he will not continue to improve.

DT Geno Atkins (24)

The Atkins’ Football.com publicity campaign continues. As has been discussed for some time now, Atkins is already one of – if not the best – interior defensive lineman in the league. A two-time Pro Bowler who was named to his first All-Pro team this season, Atkins (12.5 sacks) joined Michael Johnson (11.5) as the team’s first double-digit sackers for Cincinnati since Robert Geathers collected 10.5 in 2006. To put that in some kind of perspective, Atkins and Johnson became only the fourth and fifth players in franchise history to record 10 sacks. For further prospective, Atkins fell a half-sack short of tying the team record at a position the Bengals have never had a single player accumulate more than eight in a season (Dan Wilkinson, 1995). Atkins, a three-year veteran, already has two of the three best sack totals for a defensive tackle in team history.

A Step Below

DE Carlos Dunlap (24)

It wasn’t too long ago that Dunlap was the most-feared pass rusher the Bengals had. In 2012, Atkins and Michael Johnson surpassed him, setting the bar pretty high for him. However, back in his rookie year of 2010, the second-round pick out of Florida registered 9.5 sacks in only 287 snaps, so the ability is certainly there. Dunlap has yet to put together a full season – his 14 games played this season was a career high – so durability is a question. If he learns how to play through nagging injuries – which is something that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has been critical of – the stage is set for Dunlap to break the bank in his contract year. The 6-6, 280-pounder is perhaps the most athletically-gifted player on the Bengals’ defense and should benefit from the attention that Atkins and Johnson are sure to command in 2013.

TE Jermaine Gresham (24)

Gresham is one of only 12 tight ends in NFL history to record 170 catches, 1,800 yards and 15 touchdowns over the first three seasons of his professional career. Unfortunately, he is only the fourth-most productive tight end from his own draft class (Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Jimmy Graham), which makes him something of a disappointment since he was the first one taken in the 2010 NFL Draft. Gresham hasn’t exactly help his reputation by finishing in the top six in drops during his short career, but he also is the only one of the four tight ends that doesn’t play in a prolific offense or catch passes from a record-setting, likely Hall-of-Fame quarterback. With that said, Gresham followed perhaps the best stretch of football he has played in the NFL in November with his worst. Andy Dalton’s late-season struggles (again) probably didn’t help matters, but Gresham has yet to put it all together thus far in his career.

OLB Vontaze Burfict (22)

Burfict is easily the biggest wild-card of the bunch. Was 2012 simply his a scared rookie on his best behavior following a tumultuous final season in college – which included serious questions about his work ethic and character? Or was the disappointment of going from potential first-rounder to undrafted free agent enough to help him mature into a young man serious about his craft? These are real questions the Bengals are asking themselves – or at least should be – as they commit to him as their middle linebacker for the upcoming season. In the meantime, Cincinnati can take comfort in the fact that it might have found the answer in the middle of its defense for the next 5-10 years if Burfict has truly matured off the field.