Backed up at combine

Posted Feb 23, 2008

RELATED: 2008 Scouting Combine Index

Posted: 6:15 a.m.

INDIANAPOLIS - The question isn't if the Bengals need to draft a running back.

The question is where after they have been burnt to a crisp with a first-round pick in 2004 and the second-round pick last year that have translated to just 19 touches of the ball in the last two seasons and none last year because of a devastating series of injuries to Chris Perry and Kenny Irons.

Throw in more physical questions to the bell cow Rudi Johnson and even head coach Herman Edwards of the back-rich Chiefs says, "The Bengals need to get one. We've got to get one, too. I've got two hurt running backs. I don't know what's going to happen."

Even though he is confident Johnson is going to overcome last year's nagging hamstring problem, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis doesn't know either. Even before Johnson, 28, got hurt, his yards-per-carry has declined from 4.2 to 3.5 since 2006.

But, like Edwards, Lewis knows you play to win the game.

"It's been proven over and over. You need to have a positive running game, however you get there," Lewis said Friday at the NFL scouting combine as he reflected on the wreckage. "It's a little bit up in the air where they are as far as coming back and playing productive and winning NFL football. We'll have a better opinion of where we're at (closer to the draft)."

After a bountiful running season of Brandon Jacobs and Marion Barber (fourth-rounders), Ahmad Bradshaw (seventh-rounder), Willie Parker and Ryan Grant (free agents), Lewis concludes there is no formula to find a running back. But he did say after the re-signing of third-down back Kenny Watson last offseason that the Bengals have no interest in free veterans.

Ray Rice of Rutgers (Getty Images)
Which brings you back to the draft.

Which brings you back to last season's top 15 NFL rushers.

Parker is the only one not taken in the first three rounds.

Which brings you back to the question if the Bengals need insurance for Johnson at bell cow.

"I don't know that," Lewis said.

But Edwards does.

"You always have to have three because you know one is going to get hurt," Edwards said. "Then you're going to be down to two guys and if he ain't the bell cow, you've got to have a guy that can rotate (in) the system to be a player."

It's hard to believe after the carnage since '04 that the Bengals would spend a pick on a back before the fourth round, where they plucked Johnson in 2001. And with complementary guys like Watson, Perry, Irons and DeDe Dorsey stacking the roster, the move would have to be for a bell cow.

But those rarely graze after the third round.

As one top football exec in the NFC said Friday, "Look at rounds five to seven last year. There were 62 guys that got cut or went on injured reserve. You got to get a guy before then."

The consensus is the bell cows are going to start going in the middle of the first round to the middle of the second. With one caveat.

"Yeah, you have to get guy at about that point," Edwards said. "But with all the juniors that came out this year, a lot of those seniors are going to get pushed down a round."

Lewis admitted the Bengals would look at Arkansas' Darren McFadden in the first round. And with his character issues brimming to the top this week, McFadden very well could be there at No. 9. But what team in the top 10 has to avoid a character guy or a running back or an offensive player more than the Bengals?

Lewis politely said as much when he said the Bengals had yet to delve into personality and work-ethic questions.

So think, maybe, Georgia Tech's Tashard Choice or Tulane's Matt Forte, maybe starting in the fourth round.

"They're the best combination like Rudi," said Rob Rang, senior analyst for "They have the build, similar running style, and could get drafted in a similar spot."

Rang, who called Johnathan Joseph for the Bengals two years ago this week, also believes that some good backs are going to drop a round or two because of depth and circumstance, not because of talent. He wonders if Kevin Smith is going to get out of the third round because he's not particularly fast and even though he had a breathtaking year at Central Florida, it was just one year.

"That's why Rudi probably lasted; he didn't have speed and he had one year in Division I. But the guy became solid and consistent," Rang said. "If Smith doesn't run well, he could go to the fourth. He's got a slim build, but he's got great vision and quickness."

Smith has bell-cow size at 6-1, 210 pounds, which guys like Michigan's Mike Hart (5-9), West Virginia's Steve Slaton (195 pounds), and Rutgers' Ray Rice (5-9 and 195) don't have. Rang says that's why they may drop and it's why the Bengals probably would pass, too.

"But I like Ray Rice more than most guys," Rang said. "He's like Tiki Barber, but he's more physical than Tiki ever was."

Rang thinks the 5-11, 205-pound Choice, who transferred to Tech from Oklahoma, could drop because he got nicked up his senior year, obscuring a productive career under veteran NFL coach Chan Gailey.

"We ran a pro-style offense. I did a lot of things with my running back coach," said Choice during the Friday media interviews. "We understand the game of football, different things I had to do on the board before I even got on the field. So when we got into the interview process what's going on, it's helped me tremendously. Coaches can see I understand the game of football."

Choice knows he has the speed knock, too, and is looking to knock down the 4.5-4.6 perception to 4.4 when the backs run the 40-yard dash Saturday The 6-1, 219-pound Forte comes not only with size, but is the anti-McFadden when it comes to baggage.

"Matt Forte is the model Tulane student-athlete," Scott Cowen told the Times-Picayune at the beginning of last season.

No less the school president, Cowen also allowed, "He has the kind of values that make you proud to have him represent (Tulane) in the community."

Unfortunately for the Bengals, their situation at running back isn't as definitive.

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