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Bengals flex in AFC North arms race

Posted May 10, 2014

Head coach Marvin Lewis watched Johnny Football saunter into his life, the Ravens and Steelers grab the two best linebackers, and the Browns add another top ten cornerback.

North Carolina center Russell Bodine dominated the combine weight room.

Head coach Marvin Lewis watched Johnny Football saunter into his life, the Ravens and Steelers grab the two best linebackers, and the Browns add another top ten cornerback.

“Everybody in the division got better,’ he said Saturday evening in the litter of his 12th NFL Draft.

But he took comfort in the Bengals answering each thrust with sledgehammer responses of their own. When the dust cleared Saturday, the Bengals’ top four draft picks were molded for the physicality that always seems to rule the AFC North.

What is also clear is that the two new coordinators are wielding a confident say in how they want to attack the opponent while working in concert with the personnel department.

After hearing that the club took heat for bypassing Carlos Hyde of the Cincinnati and Ohio State Carlos Hydes, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson elaborated on how LSU’s system and Jeremy Hill’s hands fit the Bengals better. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther celebrated taking home one of his top two corners and one of his top two ends.    

After the draft’s most physical cornerback fell to them in a dream first-round scenario, they added their biggest down-hill running back in years, Hill, and teamed him with a brute center (North Carolina’s Russell Bodine) that has a chance to start on Opening Day. And for good measure they threw in one of their long, lean defensive ends who just happens to come from Pittsburgh in third-rounder Will Clarke.

“There’s no question,’ said Lewis when asked if the Bengals had joined in the North upgrades. “They have a chance to make a difference. And they’re all physical guys.”

The Bengals have carved out four playoff runs in the last five seasons largely because of four-man rushes tied to tight man-to-man coverage, so when Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard somehow was there at No. 24, it’s just what the doctor ordered. And while Lewis doesn’t expect West Virginia’s Clarke “to be a clone,” of departed right end Michael Johnson, there’s no question his production, dimensions, and work ethic, have them hoping they’ve got a younger book-end for Carlos Dunlap.

With the draft delayed by two weeks, the pundits had more time to rip the Bengals for not upgrading during the offseason because they stuck with their own players and didn’t sign free agents. But in a span of 72 hours the Bengals were back in the good graces of punditry.

After they sweated out Dennard rope-a-doping past Pittsburgh, the Jets, and Philadelphia, the next six rounds were a piece of cake. They actually talked about taking their third-rounder in the second and their fourth-rounder in the third, so that made three no-brainers.

And taking Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron in the fifth round wasn’t too hard, either, after they had talked about him earlier.

“He’s a great prospect. He happened to be there. We had some other needs we found important to continue to move for,” Lewis said. “We’re excited about A.J. We had a grade that we were comfortable taking A.J. earlier in the draft; we just chose to move a different direction. It’s going to be hard to have A.J. 1 and A.J. 2, though.”

“Once again, the Bengals knocked it out of the park,” is how NFL.com put it. SI.com gave the Dennard pick an A-minus and ESPN gave the draft a thumbs up.

 “Well I think we did quite a bit of upgrading last year,” Lewis said. “We signed over 20 guys back to our football team. I think we have those guys here, we had a great draft of good, young players a year ago, and that’s the same thing. I think if you continue to draft young players, you don’t have to go out there and get into changing somebody else’s habits. Because when we bring somebody new in here, a veteran player from somewhere else, many of those guys come and they plug in and play where they go. They have a difficult transition; it’s a four, five, six-week transition. It’s better to grow them from the ground up, and letting them mature and do their thing into your role.”

Now Lewis has plenty to throw into the ground as he continues to cultivate a pounding style espoused by Jackson against athletic 3-4 defenses of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Baltimore.

Start in the middle, where the Bengals made history and traded up to get Bodine in the fourth round. When they gave a sixth-rounder to Seattle to move from 123 to 111, it marked just the third time in their history they traded up.

The Bengals not only think he could start (they could then move Mike Pollak back to guard), but that he’ll also eventually become a locker room leader. He’s 310 pounds and mean, which the Bengals haven’t always been against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. As if to heave Jackson’s call for trench dominance into the air, Bodine was the only player to bench press 225 pounds over 40 times (42) at the NFL Scouting Combine.

While Lewis listened to Bodine during the club’s 15-minute interview session with him at the combine, Lewis jotted in his notes, “Want this guy on our team.” That doesn’t happen often. It’s believed he also made the same note on Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

“Out of 60, probably three or four,” Lewis said of the early take. “We’ve got a bunch of them on this football team that we’ve had over the years. I think that’s a good thing. That’s an impressive thing. Sometimes they tend to play the same positions .They’re stable guys and guys that you want to build from.”

Jackson got his man in the 6-0, 233-pound Hill, a punishing running back who gouged out 6.9 yards per carry out of a pro offense in the pro-stocked SEC.  It’s unclear what that does to the status of incumbent power back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. But it does give Jackson the Cincinnati version of Thunder and Lightning with 5-9 Giovani Bernard coming off a Rookie of the Year season. Hill is just 21 and isn’t coming in beat up after rotating with two other backs in Baton Rouge.

(Look what the Steelers did in the third round Friday, when they teamed big back Le’Veon Bell with the 5-8 Dri Archer. And the Ravens are hoping they’ll have Ray Rice soon enough with Bernard Pierce.)

Hill’s college offensive coordinator is even straight out of the AFC North in Cam Cameron. Jackson, actually, was Cameron’s quarterbacks coach in Baltimore in 2008 and 2009.

“I think it was a huge benefit for me. Coach Cameron has a lot of ties to the NFL, knows a lot of people who he can call and talk to still to this day,” Hill said. “The offense that he put in at LSU is very similar to what we’re doing here in Cincinnati. I think you know just having those ties is very good for me. I’m able to relate and just transfer things right over; same plays just a different terminology or a different call. So I think from that standpoint, just having Coach Cameron bring in those type of protections and things of that nature onto the forefront at LSU made things a lot easier for us in our transition to the NFL.”

But the guy who may personify these upgrades is the 6-6, 271-pound Clarke, a native of, of all places, Pittsburgh, who played at Taylor Allderdice High School, known more for its academics than sports. Clarke grew up watching the division.

“A lot,” Clarke said. “The game has changed. Running, hard-nosed offenses. Defenses smacking them…I never hated Cincinnati or Cleveland. I just like to see good football.  It was a good game when we played.”

It hasn’t changed that much, but then Clarke says he hasn’t been following it since college because his Sundays were occupied. What he’ll see now is not much different than five years ago. Even his favorite Steeler, safety Troy Polamalu, is still there.

“Growing up I liked them all,” he said. “Troy just because he had the hair running around wild.”

He also liked a Bengals player growing up.

“Corey Dillon, the running back,’ he said. “Me and my Dad were actually big fans of his. We liked the way he ran.”

Tough. Physical. For the fifth time since they drafted, yes, Michael Johnson in 2009, the Bengals toughed it up in the trenches by drafting at least one defensive lineman in the first three rounds. Clarke is the fourth defensive end. And maybe the shortest of the four.

“If I could have put him in a different number (jersey No. 93), I would have. I was thinking about that this morning,” Lewis said. “Michael Johnson (formerly No. 93) had an incredible career here. We’re not cloning anybody; we’re trying to make sure this is the first Will Clarke. What Michael did goes without saying. Will has big shoes to fill, if he could ever fill those shoes left by M.J., just because of the person, the player, and the man that Michael was and continues to be. But he’s got some great role models in that defensive line room and a great opportunity to come in here and learn how to be an NFL defensive lineman from some very, very good people and uplift us right away.”

 

Clarke knows the ropes. He played all over the place at West Virginia last year, the first season when the Mountaineers were able to frequently rush the passer all-out of their revamped 4-3. The only spot  he played just a little bit was nose tackle. He even played the three technique at tackle at times on run downs. He also played both ends and since he :leanred to play with vboth shands as a freshman,” he says he doesn’t feel awkward at either left or right end.

   But the top four picks weren’t about versatility. They were about strength and stamina and dishing it out and manning up. Clarke is the only player in the history of West Virginia to win the Iron Mountaineer in three offseasons as the most outstanding football player in the weight room. He says his intensity in the weight room was fueled by his growth spurt that left him lanky and stringy. Older players used to push him around on the field, so he wanted to be ready for 330-pound offensive linemen.

“We have a grading sheet for our workouts every day. So everyone’s being evaluated on the whole team,” Clarke said. “Once we go through spring ball, of course you’re still being evaluated, but it’s more of a weight room thing, not so much on the field. What happens is, the strength coaches, they get together and get about six names of everyone on the team who they feel deserves an award. And then they leave it up to my teammates. Then they will vote for a skill player, a combination player, and a line player — offensive lineman or defensive lineman.”

 Which gives you an idea of just how well he’ll fit into this defensive line room? Like Johnson, Clarke played some high school basketball. The 6-7 Johnson liked to talk about how he used to slip outside every once in a awhile to make a jumper.

Clarke laughed.

“You don’t want to get too used to being out there,” he said. “That’s when they start calling you soft.”

Which is something you can’t call this draft.

 

 

 

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