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Andre offers giant flexibility as Bengals go on guard


Andre Smith has already played 82 games as a Bengal.

The Bengals went back to the future Tuesday to solve the departure of right guard Kevin Zeitler to Cleveland when old friend Andre Smith agreed to a Paul Brown Stadium reunion. According to an ESPN report Smith is headed back to the place where it all began in the 2009 draft.

It looks like it will be a familiar face in a new place. Indications are the Bengals are going to play Smith at right guard next to new starting right tackle Jake Fisher. Smith, 30, who started 73 games at right tackle for the Bengals over seven seasons before taking a one-year deal in Minnesota last year, doesn't have an NFL start at guard. But he's practiced there for the Bengals and it has long been thought that his powerful frame, sheer strength, and athletic feet would make him an elite guard.

The reunion with Smith and offensive line coach Paul Alexander soothes a transition that began last week when Zeitler went to the Browns and Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth went to the Rams. After flying back home to Birmingham, Ala., from his PBS visit Tuesday night, Smith flashed some of that veteran leadership the Bengals need to replace Whitworth's 11 seasons and 168 games.

"I'm excited about it," Smith said. "I told them if you need me to play tackle, I'll play tackle. If you need me to play guard, I'll play guard. It's not going to hurt me. It will help me become more versatile. And it's going to help the team.  They won't have to move a lineman from one spot because I can play both."

Smith comes with a well-known pedigree. In Bengals' history, only Whitworth's six post-season appearances are more than the five of Smith, wide receiver A.J. Green, quarterback Andy Dalton, and wide receiver Brandon Tate on the offensive side of the ball. He played two years with center Russell Bodine and five years with left guard Clint Boling while helping Fisher his rookie year. Now the man that replaced Smith last year, Cedric Ogbuehi, is being asked for the second straight year to replace a long-time tackle in Whitworth.

"I've never played the position. Everything is new," Smith said. "But I feel like I'm a good enough player and I have enough faith in myself that I can do anything I put my mind to. Paul's a really good coach and he's going to coach me up well.

"I haven't played there in ages. But I know I'll put the effort and the work in and it's going to pay off."

The Smith signing also gives them mega flexibility. The Bengals are showing enormous faith in their young tackles, but since they don't have a backup for Ogbuehi at left tackle, Fisher could be an option in case of injury.

Smith, the sixth overall player taken, becomes the second high-profile choice from the 2009 draft to return to Cincinnati. He joins right end Michael Johnson, a third-round pick that spent a year in Tampa Bay before coming back in 2015. Two other defensive linemen, Pat Sims (Oakland) and Wallace Gilberry (Detroit) left and came back .Gilberry is a free agent who could return.

When Smith became a free agent last season, they thought they had his replacement in Ogbuehi, a first-round pick himself who primarily played left tackle at Texas A&M. But Ogbuehi never adjusted to right tackle and was benched after allowing eight sacks in 11 games. After Eric Winston started the next two games, Fisher, a 2015 second-round pick, started the last three games. Winston, who joined the Bengals late in 2014 when Smith suffered a season-ending torn tricep, has also re-signed.

Smith was a rookie the last time the offensive line underwent such a massive change. He couldn't play early on in his rookie year because of a broken foot and made just one start when he returned for the last six games.

That year Whitworth became the permanent left tackle and new starters at left guard (undrafted Nate Livings), at center (undrafted Kyle Cook) and right tackle (fourth-rounder Anthony Collins and undrafted Dennis Roland along with Smith) played well enough to help the Bengals to a 10-6 record and a sweep of their division games.

"We ran to glory every day," Smith said. "I believe in the guys in this offensive line room. There are guys who are really good football players. I've played with Jake, Russ, Clint, Eric. I never had chance to play with Ced … He's the starting left tackle and we'll all have to work together and I think we'll have really good camaraderie.  I learned great things from Whitworth. I think we'll get better every day and work harder than anybody else. I'll have that little chip on my shoulder. I'm looking forward to it."

Smith looks to be recovering from tearing his other tricep early last season.

Meanwhile, as speculated by many the minute he came off the bench and produced last season for the Bengals, running back Rex Burkhead found a free agency home in New England Tuesday.

The Bengals indicated they were moving on from Burkhead during the offseason when running back Jeremy Hill got their ringing endorsement even though Burkhead outgained him, 305-216, on his 4.7 yards per carry to Hill's 2.5 in the final six games after Giovani Bernard's ACL tear.

After sitting behind Hill and Bernard for three seasons and 30 touches and the Bengals talking about drafting a running back, the versatile Burkhead, 26, who played slot receiver for the Bengals in a play-off game, headed to the Super Bowl champion Patriots.

It probably means the Bengals are going to move to re-sign special teams co-captain Cedric Peerman. The biggest hole Burkhead leaves is on special teams, where he filled in for the Pro Bowler Peerman, 30, when he missed the first ten games with a broken arm. Burkhead's 12 tackles led special teams. With Monday's release of wide receiver James Wright, the Bengals won't have their two leading teams tacklers from last season.

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