Updated: 6:45 p.m.
Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium was a whirlwind for the Bengals and offered a window where they stand as they prepare to greet their players for the start of offseason workouts on Monday and with the NFL Draft two weeks away.
With the eye-opener former NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison working out in a stadium where he played the role of the big villain for the bad Steelers for the previous nine years, the Bengals continued to search the veteran market for role players that supplement a roster that has remained virtually untouched during the 30 days of free agency.
It's believed the Bengals were hoping to close a deal Thursday night with backup guard
Harrison, who has spent his entire career as an outside linebacker in the Steelers 3-4 defense while becoming one of the NFL's most dominant pass rushers, emerged as a candidate to start at SAM backer in the Bengals 4-3. It's a position that in the past has required about 25 to 30 snaps per game in defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's scheme, but Harrison looks to have all the qualities for the job even though he's never played it. He has always held up well against the run and in zone drops on pass coverage, and he would give Zimmer another pass-rush weapon to complement a unit coming off a franchise-record 51 sacks.
Also in the house Thursday was tight end Alex Smith, off a three-year stint in Cleveland that was his third stop during his nine seasons in the NFL. Smith, a third-round pick of the Buccaneers out of Stanford in 2005, broke in under Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden when both were in Tampa Bay and reflects Cincinnati's interest in finding a better blocker at the No. 2 tight end spot behind
The 6-4, 258-pound Smith has 160 catches and 12 touchdowns in 102 career games for a 9.1 yards per catch average with 129 of those catches and 11 of those touchdowns coming with the Grudens' offense in Tampa Bay from 2005-2009.
Osron Charles, a fourth-round pick last year, served in that role last year but the Bengals may be looking at him more now as an H-Back type a la James Casey in Houston so they can take advantage of his hands.
The Bengals also hosted a full house of draft prospects Thursday, according to various tweets and blogs, anchored by West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin. Also on hand were Florida safety Matt Elam, Oregon guard-tackle Kyle Long, and Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown, part of the contingent of 30 prospects the Bengals are allowed to host before the draft.
It is pure due diligence. Austin won't get near the Bengals at No. 21, Long won't be considered if the Bengals re-sign right tackle
All indications are that the Bengals still have Andre Smith on their radar and want to sign him before the draft opens April 25, which would be their one major contract remaining before heading into what they hope are extensions for two-time Pro Bowl tackle
Wharton is in an intriguing spot. He signed a starter's contract last year before blowing out his knee on his third snap as a Bengal, but could he be a potential right tackle? He's never played the right side in his eight seasons, but he has played two full seasons and parts of two others at left tackle. Plus, with 10 picks the Bengals figure to draft an interior player at some point.
The buzz, of course, belonged to Harrison. His workout followed 10-year veteran Karlos Dansby's visit to PBS on Wednesday so it's doubtful the Bengals will sign both since Dansby would also be ticketed to play SAM. He could be a better fit given his experience in a 4-3, but the 6-0, 242-pound Harrison showed the same Pro Bowl ferocity last season that marked his two Super Bowl runs in Pittsburgh even though he turns 35 next month. After missing the first three games with a knee issue, he still led the team with six sacks last year, which gave him 64 for his career.
Harrison looms as a potentially intriguing piece for Zimmer in his game of chess against protections as he looks for ways to supplement the defense's top edge rushers, Dunlap and franchise right end
At his workout Harrison reportedly showed what the Bengals already thought after playing against him for the last nine seasons. He apparently moved easily dropping into coverages and catching the ball. There would have been no reason to evaluate his pass rush, which has netted him five seasons of at least 8.5 sacks.
The Bengals are also well aware of his intangibles. Harrison would bring a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners playing style that has made him one of the league's most intimidating players.
The next step for the two parties is getting their hands around a deal and it's not clear where that might fall. Scheduled to make $6.5 million this year, Harrison turned down a pay cut that was reportedly worth 30 percent. The door back to the Steelers looks to be closed, but it's believed Harrison would like to stay in the AFC North. He was in the mix in Baltimore until the Ravens signed Elvis Dumervil.
Bill Parise, Harrison's agent, had no comment Thursday night.