CINCINNATI — Marvin Lewis wasn’t quite ready to pull the trigger on an announcement he knew was forthcoming. Two days before the NFL’s annual draft is set to begin, Lewis was meeting with local media members Tuesday morning to discuss how the team figures to handle its lot of nine picks that include four in the first 99 selections and six among the first 135 chances.
The question of whether or not the team was going to pick up fifth-year contract options on cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and right guard Kevin Zeitler — the Bengals’ two first-round picks from the 2012 draft — came up. A news report was out in cyberspace that the Bengals had decided to pick up those options but nothing was official at that point, so Lewis was hedging on what he’d say in response. He’s not one to give away information before it’s time.
Bengals PR man Jack Brennan saved Lewis, noting that the club didn’t have anything on the matter yet.
"Thanks, Jack," said Lewis.
A couple of hours later, the Bengals had something.
The contracts for Kirkpatrick and Zeitler had been extended by one year, taking them off the market as potential free agents next offseason. It’s the same thing the Bengals did last year with A.J. Green, who was their first-round pick in 2011.
In a perfect world for Lewis that’s what the Bengals would be doing with any player they draft. The draft is the lifeblood for an NFL franchise. Some franchises take that philosophy to heart more than others. The Bengals would like to consider themselves among the more serious believers in the draft.
When they decide it’s worth $15.6 million to ensure Kirkpatrick and Zeitler are going to be around at least one extra year, it’s a sign that belief is paying dividends.
"It’s not quite the Super Bowl but it’s part of the process that hopefully at some point gets you there," said Lewis about the level of importance he and organization place on the draft. "I do think it’s very important for the organization always going forward that we’re fortunate enough to add good, young players that that are going to be here for three, four seasons some of them and hopefully longer into their second contracts. That’s the way the process should work."
It’s a philosophy Lewis learned while an assistant coach in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. It’s a philosophy he says has been a bond between him and Bengals president Mike Brown since Brown hired Lewis in 2003. Over the years the Bengals have evolved their scouting department, headed by director of player personnel Duke Tobin, into one of the most efficient and productive in the NFL.
There are misses, no doubt, but more often than not the Bengals are getting quality play from their draft picks. The cloud of no playoff wins since the 1990 season, including losses in the first round each of the last four postseasons, hangs over the organization. It also hides the fact that the Bengals have been good enough to get to that point.
First-round losses aren’t the accomplishments they’re seeking or are beating their chest about but four straight playoff berths also aren’t something to dismiss. That goes back to the organizational philosophy.
Draft, develop, retain.
"He has to have great energy. He has to love to play football. He’s got to be smart enough to handle it," said Lewis, describing the basic outline of a player the Bengals want to draft. "I think within all of that if I had a fourth (trait) it would be all the physical traits of speed and athleticism, but those other three are very important, because you have to work very hard to be a great player in the NFL. You’re coming into a group of players that works extremely hard and knows the physicality of the game so you have to have all those attributes in order to make it. That’s probably the biggest hoop to jump through."
Of the 32 players chosen in the first round in 2012, only 13 have had their fifth-year options exercised so far. Teams have until May 3 to do so. By comparison, the Browns also had two picks in the first round that year: running back Trent Richardson at No. 3 and quarterback Brandon Weeden at No. 22. The Browns never got to the point of deciding on a fifth-year option. They chose long ago to part ways with both players.
Zeitler started right away after the Bengals drafted him 27th overall out of Wisconsin. His option is worth $8.1 million. Kirkpatrick was selected 10 spots in front of Zeitler. He hasn’t been a starter his first three seasons, in part because of injuries and in part because of the fact that he’s had three strong players in front of him in Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Terence Newman.
That should change this season. Newman signed with Minnesota as an unrestricted free agent. Hall and Jones are each on the plus-side of 30 and entering the final years of their contracts. Kirkpatrick played well in the second half of last season when he got the chance. This year it’s time for Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard, last year’s No. 1 pick, to earn starting spots from the get-go.
The Bengals have seen Kirkpatrick working with greater urgency and maturity the past couple of offseason to reach beyond a starting status. That’s why they made the decision to make sure he’s around in 2016 by picking up his $7.5 million option.
"A lot of the going out had to stop. A lot of the staying up late had to stop. It’s pretty much putting everything in line," Kirkpatrick told reporters this week. "I feel like I did a great job. My trainer did a great job. My trainer is up here right now. We’re going to be doing a little extra work in the offseason before going into OTAs, do little extra work after practice some time.
"I want to be the best. I don’t want to just be a starting corner. I want to be the best. I want to be the No. 1 corner in the league."