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Bengals begin to sort out O-line

Posted Feb 20, 2014

To use a phrase and then beat it about the head, it is the best of times and the most unsettling of times for Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander.

INDIANAPOLIS  To use a phrase and then beat it about the head, it is the best of times and the most unsettling of times for Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander.

After viewing Thursday morning's weigh-in for the offensive line on the first full day of the NFL Scouting Combine, Alexander's "eye-ball test," saw what he has seen on tape the past month. It is a deep a draft.

(Auburn's Greg Robinson, a top 10 pick, turned out to be the leading eye candy at 6-5, 332 pounds with the longest arrms of any player at last month's Senior Bowl, 35 inches according to nfldraftscout.com.)

"The eyeball test is still a pretty good test. Guys who pick horses can pick them out before the race," Alexander said. "There are a lot of guys with NFL bodies. No fat guys. Big, athletic-looking kids with long arms. You see the reach, you see the kids up there and it kind of confirms it's a good draft for offensive linemen. There are a lot of tackles and a lot of guards. That's all I know."

He also knows his offensive line could end up looking any number of ways, starting with the free-agent status of left tackle Anthony Collins, then moving to the health of left guard Clint Boling's knee, the development of last year's fifth-rounder, Tanner Hawkinson, and the pursuit to re-sign Mike Pollak, a center that impressed them with how he played off the bench at guard in five starts.

"We've got a lot of variables and we have to go in with our eyes wide open," Alexander said.

Alexander says he understands that Boling is scheduled to be available in September off his ACL surgery, although his rehab is going well and he's vowing to be back in time for late July's start of training camp. Either way, Alexander's not sure who lines up at left guard in May and has to plan like he doesn't have Boling until later.

"His name is Braswell," said Alexander, referring to the Bengals' new offensive assistant Brian Braswell, a former center and tackle at Hampton.

So he still needs a guard. It could be Hawkinson, a rookie that looked good playing both tackle and guard in the last preseason, but Alexander says guard is his best position.

"He may have to step up his learning curve and get in there," Alexander said. "Boling wasn't ready and he got better quickly and the same thing with (right guard Kevin) Zeitler."

Collins had a brilliant season protecting the passer in his seven starts for a banged-up front with Colts sack artist Robert Mathis among his victims in a sack-free season. Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth played well when he moved to left guard for Boling,  but it's not a lock that they would draft a left tackle if Collins doesn't return.

They can move Whitworth back to left tackle, a spot he says he prefers, and patch left guard with Hawkinson and Boling. The Collins negotiations may be a bit dicey. With Whitworth averaging about $5 million in the last two years of his deal and right tackle Andre Smith about $6 million per year, it's going to be tough to pay Collins more than those two.

But that's not part of Alexander's bailiwick. He's simply looking for answers and he thinks he's got them in some form. Unsettling, but options.

"I have no concerns,' Alexander said.  "We have enough good players that we'll sort it out and we'll be fine. We’ll get guys signed or we'll pick some up, or we'll play with what we have, but we'll be fine."

The other option is that deep draft of tackles that can play the left side. The conventional wisdom is that there are a handful of guys among the NFL's top 30 prospects that can play left tackle, which would indicate they can get one at No. 24. With Whitworth turning 33 in December and working on a deal through 2015, when is it time to draft his replacement if Collins isn't re-upped?

Rob Rang, resident draft guru for NFLDraftscout.com and CBS Sports.com, isolated Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio  and Virginia's Morgan Moses as potential late first-rounders. Kouandjio is out of the recent 'Bama tradition of Andre Smith and D.J. Fluker, a big, 6-6, 6-7ish guy that has good feet and good tape in a good league, although the word is he has struggled against speed rushers. The 6-foot-6, 325-pound Moses allowed just two sacks on 506 passes in 43 career starts. Not exactly a pro offense, but Rang says he's coming off "a spectacular Senior Bowl,' that showed he has the stuff to pass block.

Rang and other draftnicks have rated Notre Dame left tacle Zach Martin in that range, but the eyeball test matters and at 6-4 1-2 with arms just shy of 33 inches, that doesn't fit the Bengals' dimensions for a tackle under Alexander. Whitworth is 6-7 and Collins is a basketballish 6-5. Andre Smith is 6-4, but 335 pounds with long arms. Even Hawkinson is 6-5 and rangy.

The guy that Martin gets compared to is Patriots' All-Pro guard Logan Mankins.

"I think he'll be a better guard than tackle," said NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt. "His arms are a little short. He's as really, really good player. He's a first-round pick and he'll play 10, 11 years. But not at tackle."

Martin, of course, thinks he can and plans to use study and technique to counteract his size. But he does like the sounds of the pros liking his versatility.

Brandt is assured there'll be a tackle at No. 24, but it depends on taste. Moses isn't physically imposing and some have him at the top of the second round, Brandt doesn't think Kouandjio is going to be there and Tennessee's Antonio Richardson is young and is a mid-second-rounder by some.

 

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