Since their birth in 1967, the Cincinnati Bengals have been a sort of shirt-tail extension of the other Ohio professional football team. Even in times of success, the Bengals feel like the bridesmaid and never the bride.
That’s because the patriarch of the franchise was the irrepressible Paul Brown, who founded the Browns and coached that team for 17 seasons until he was shown the door in 1963 by owner Art Modell. Four years passed while Brown stewed and schemed, obsessed with returning himself to professional football. Finally, in 1967, his doggedness wedged Brown into the American Football League as co-founder and head coach of the Bengals.
In his eight seasons on the sidelines of the Bengals, Brown brought his team to the playoffs three times, but the accomplishment he was most proud of was when the AFL merged with the NFL. As a result, he returned to the NFL with a second Ohio football team.
In all the years the Bengals have been in existence, the defense has rarely been their calling card. Only once, in 1983, has the franchise led the league in fewest yards allowed. The three times the Bengals have been to the Super Bowl, they’ve never ranked higher than 12th in total defense. Slinging the ball has been Cincinnati’s forte. In 22 out of 55 years, the Bengals have ranked in the top 10 in yards gained.
Still, devoted Bengals aficionados can run off the names of some of the greatest defenders to wear the striped helmet. Here’s my selection of the five best defensive players to ever play for Cincinnati.
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Top 5 Bengals Defensive Players of All-Time
5. Reggie Williams, LB (1976-1989)
Williams played almost his entire pro career on a bum knee. It didn’t matter. He recorded 62.5 sacks — second most in franchise history — and he played in two Super Bowls for Cincinnati. He was a member of the NFL All-Rookie Team in 1976, and he recorded 16 interceptions and 23 fumble recoveries, which is a franchise record.
4. David Fulcher, DB (1986-1992)
Fulcher’s list of accomplishments is impressive:
- First-team All-Pro (1989)
- Second-team All-Pro (1990)
- Three straight Pro Bowls (1988–1990)
- NFL All-Rookie Team (1986)
An intense competitor on the field but a good teammate off, Fulcher recorded eight interceptions in 1989 — one of the best seasons by a Bengals defensive back. He also had two three-interception games, a franchise mark. In 2017, when the team announced its “all-time legends,” as part of a 50th anniversary, Fulcher ranked as the team’s sixth greatest player.
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3. Carlos Dunlap, DE (2010-2020)
A second-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Dunlap made the All-Rookie team and was twice named to the Pro Bowl as a defensive end. Number 96 was a relentless pursuer of running backs and quarterbacks. His 82.5 sacks as a Bengal ranks second in franchise history.
2. Ken Riley, CB (1969-1983)
Few defensive players are as durable as Riley, who played for the Bengals in three decades and in two leagues. His career stretched from the era of Paul Brown to Forrest Gregg and the Cincy team that played in Super Bowl XVI. Riley eventually set franchise marks for most games played, most tackles, and consecutive games played.
Riley was a quarterback in college for Florida A&M, but Paul Brown loved his speed and converted him to defensive back in his rookie season, and also used him to return kicks. The move proved wise, as Riley picked off four passes in the last five games of the 1969 season. His 65 interceptions are almost twice as many as the next man on the list for the Bengals. Riley returned five interceptions for a touchdown, which also remains a franchise record even though his last game was in 1983.
Though Riley was only named All-Pro once, he was a star in Cincinnati, often on mediocre teams.
1. Eddie Edwards, DE (1977-1988)
Probably the most tenacious and fearsome defender to ever strap on a helmet for the Bengals, Edwards was a first-round draft pick by Cincinnati in 1977 out of the University of Miami, where he was a consensus All-American.
Quickly, “Double-E” gained a reputation for his manhandling of offensive linemen and terrorizing of enemy quarterbacks.
“I can close my eyes and still see Eddie chasing me,” Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw once said.
In his 12 years in the NFL — all spent in the orange and black — Edwards recovered 17 fumbles and caused more opposing linemen to get a case of the jitters than could be counted. A member of the NFL All-Rookie team in 1977, Edwards got better and better, and eventually when he retired, he had 83.5 sacks to his credit — an unofficial franchise record as the league did not keep track of sacks very well before the mid-1980s.
The Bengals have only retired one number (No. 54 of center Bob Johnson), but Edwards is one of the most deserving of the small group who should also get that honor and is the most deserving defensive player.
AP Photo/Emilee Chinn