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Draft running on '09 template

Posted May 9, 2014

The Bengals began Friday re-stocking their AFC North championship blueprint by drafting an answer to the Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell and topped it off by drafting a guy from Pittsburgh itself.

Five years after the Bengals started it all with 6-7 Michael Johnson, here comes West Virginia's 6-6 Will Clarke.

The Bengals began Friday re-stocking their AFC North championship blueprint by drafting an answer to the Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell and topped it off by drafting a guy from Pittsburgh itself.

The brew that began to bubble with the AFC North title and the NFL’s fourth best defense in 2009 continued to percolate in the Bengals draft room Friday night when they gave weapons to a new offensive coordinator in the second round in presenting Hue Jackson with one of his big backs in LSU’s Jeremy Hill and they drafted another power forward in the form of West Virginia’s Will Clarke to play defensive end in the third.

Before that on Thursday they also added their fourth first-round cornerback since 2006 when they stole Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard from the draftnicks at No. 24. They’ve teamed up first-round corners since 2008 and, maybe it’s a coincidence but probably not, they’ve been to the playoffs four times and had a top ten defense four times.

The three choices, who arrive Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium before joining the club Monday for workouts, reflect how the new offensive and defensive coordinators influenced decision-making because they are so familiar with the systems and personnel.

First-year defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who watched Mike Zimmer build top 10 defenses on four-man rushes and tight coverage, got two players he hopes help both. Jackson, who is looking to grind up defenses with a power run game spiced by deep passing, got his AFC North bruiser.

“In the draft, you can never get enough rushers and you can never get enough cover guys, and we’ve addressed both of those areas here early,” said Guenther, then he offered a grin when he talked about Clarke.

“Having long guys like that, especially against little quarterbacks in our division now, we need guys to get their hands up in the air,” said Guenther of what appeared to be new Cleveland quarterback Johnny Manziel.

The Bengals apparently believe Andy Dalton is part of the formula because they haven’t lifted a finger to draft a quarterback and they’ve had plenty of chances. If it wasn’t Teddy Bridgewater in the first round or Jimmy Garoppolo in the second, it was Aaron Murray , Zach Mettenberger, or A.J. McCarron  in the third.

Those last three are still available, but if the Bengals stick to their circa 2009 formula, they’ll attack their offensive line in Saturday’s final four rounds, as well as stock up at wide receiver, cornerback, and safety.

Quarterback?

Bengals president Mike Brown must think he can sign Dalton before he enters free agency next year. Head coach Marvin Lewis must think that Jackson’s demanding approach is enough of a push for Dalton. And what Dalton doesn’t need is more heat, but less of it. Hence the cultivation of the running game and the addition of a complementary bruiser for scintillating Giovani Bernard.   

“I’ve made no bones about wanting to run the football,” Jackson said. “I think this guy’s a good runner, a very talented runner. There are some very talented runners here. We’ll let the competition take care of itself and the cream will rise to the top.”

The Bengals’ rise has been marked by the contribution of young players early. Dennard is going to challenge a trio  of thirty something corners, Hill is pushing the leader of the running back room, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Clarke is low man on a roster of veteran defensive ends looking to replace Michael Johnson that include Carlos Dunlap, Robert Geathers, Wallace Gilberry, and Margus Hunt, last year’s second-round pick.

“At the end of the day, we have to line up and we’re going to play the best players,” Jackson said. “That’s the name of this business.”

 Ever since rookie offensive coordinator Jay Gruden got Dalton and three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green in 2011, the Bengals have made sure they’ve had weapons. In ’12 it was two wide receivers, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, and last year it was tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard .

Now here comes the 6-0, 233-pound Hill, believed to be the first 230-pound back drafted early since one Ickey Woods some 26 years ago.

And Hill knows exactly why he’s here.

“I’m very familiar with the division. It’s tough AFC football, especially when it’s cold weather,” Hill said. “ You have to be able to cram it in there and get yardage. I think that’s the vision the coaches had, especially around playoff time, to have a back that can get the tough yardage and finish runs late in the game and that’s something I’m very excited to do.”

Which, of course is what the Bengals haven’t been able to do in the playoffs? So if you don’t draft a quarterback, draft a plan to make the one you’ve got more successful by taking the heat off him.

“He can play on first down, second down, and third down. I think you have to have a skill to not just be able to run, you’ve got be able to pass protect for the quarterback,” Jackson said. “And then you also have to be able to, at the end of the day, make huge plays. And he’s done it; the guy rushed for 1,400 yards this past year. So you’re talking about the SEC, which is one of the best conferences in college football, and a guy who rushed for 1,400 yards sharing time. He averaged over six yards per carry at 233 pounds, so I think the sky’s the limit for this young man.”

 While the Bengals gave their quarterback more weapons, they continued to reinforce the long, lean pass-rushing template that began when they drafted the 6-7 Michael Johnson in the third round in 2009. In quick succession they drafted defensive ends that have stood 6-6 (Dunlap), 6-8 (Hunt) and Clarke (6-6). If the Steelers and Ravens load up on linebackers (Ryan Shazier, C.J.Mosley), then the Bengals stockpile ginormous ends.  

No doubt Clarke will be inactive early in the year like Hunt was last season. With what looks to be five ends already (Clarke, Dunlap, Geathers, Gilberry, Hunt), the hope has to be they keep nine defensive linemen because if not one of them has to go. If Clarke progresses like Johnson did when he served as a backup his rookie year…But Clarke has played a lot of football and in a lot of spots and that versatility, along with the talent and size has the Bengals excited. 

“This guy played in a three-man line. He was inside playing three-technique and he’s not afraid to mix it up,” said defensive line coach Jay Hayes.. “I’ve seen him all over the board as a defensive lineman. That’s what grew me to him. When I put my list together I said, ‘Paul, we need to look at this guy. He’s got some things that we like.’ When you see him play and look at his coaching tape and those type of things, like I said, you’ll see him in a two-technique, a three-technique. He’ll play four-technique; he’ll play five-technique.”

Guenther:  “He’s going to develop into a bigger bodied guy. We felt like with his frame, he could add weight. Like I said, we like long pass rushers, athletic guys,” Guenther said. “It’s been proven in the NFL over the last five, 10 years that you can never have enough rushers. If we’re going to err on defense between a rush guy and something else, we want more of those guys. Because we love to roll them in, keep them fresh. In the NFL these days, as much of a passing league it’s been, again, you can never have enough of those kinds of guys.”

Another part of the formula since about ’09 has been staying away from character risks and adding solid locker room characters. They did that in Dennard and Clarke and even Hill, the guy with a record, has made a yeoman effort to prove to the NFL he made two youthful indiscretions. He sent what he calls “a very lengthy,” letter to all the teams before the NFL scouting combine telling them anything they wanted to know.

Lewis and Jackson preferred to do their own research and they came away satisfied from their conversations with the LSU coaches they know.

No such concerns with Dennard and Clarke, two guys that fit right into the Bengals’ two most experienced and professional positions.

Dennard is a Leon Hall clone right down to his desire to stay in the background.  Clarke is a kid from the neighborhood in Pittsburgh and when asked what flight he wanted to Cincinnati Saturday, he waved it off and said he’d drive over from Morgantown, W. Va., instead. The thinking is these two guys fit right into their groups.

“We have long, tall athletic players, and he is definitely one of those guys. We’re very excited to bring him in and have him learn from some really good players and some experienced players in Carlos Dunlap, Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers, guys that have played a lot of football here and done very, very well for us,” Hayes said. “ That’s going to be a great opportunity for him to be with those guys, and get in the mix with those guys, and get in the rotation as it goes and see what happens.”

 

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