Updated: 9:30 p.m.
No one knows where Jacob Bell is going to line up for the Bengals once they get on the field next month. But whether it is left or right guard, Bell says it all feels very familiar. Like home.
Complete with a welcoming phone call from Bengals Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Muñoz.
Bell, a Cleveland native, is set to become the third Miami University product for the Bengals to play in the stadium named after his alma mater's most famous alumnus.
"It definitely feels like a homecoming; my phone has been blowing up ever since the news came out," Bell said Wednesday. "I love coming back to Ohio and the Bengals are headed the right way."
Bell, 31, is headed here on what reports said last week is a one-year deal. And while the Bengals made the move official Wednesday and offensive line coach Paul Alexander welcomed Bell's trifecta of athleticism, brains and experience, he can't tell you what side his veteran guards are going to take.
"I can't tell you because I don't know," said Alexander, who has picked up the combined 199 NFL games of Bell and Panthers left guard Travelle Wharton in the past month. "It will play out. And we have two young guys, Otis Hudson and Clint Boling that are in the mix.
"I'm glad to have (Bell). He's had a good career. He's a good athlete, pulls well, and is good in space."
But there is new ground being broken. These aren't the typical mauling, brute-strong Bengals guards of the past three years or so.
The addition of the athletic 300-pound Bell and the 312-pound Wharton, 30, are a big contrast to the men they are destined to replace in 332-pound left guard Nate Livings and 345-pound right guard Bobbie Williams. Head coach Marvin Lewis says the Bengals are more athletic inside now, but how that changes things, particularly in the running game, remains to be seen.
"We've got two guys we feel really good about," Lewis said. "Nate's been a big, strong, tough player for us who developed over time. Bobbie has been what Bobbie is. We've got some younger guys. We feel like we've improved our athleticism and we feel good about that."
Lewis and the Bengals clearly have high regard for Williams, the man that has started all but 10 of the 128 regular-season games at right guard since he signed as a free agent in 2004. At 35, Williams is rehabbing after surgery for the ankle he broke late last season. Lewis won't rule out Williams coming back, but he noted the rehab continues.
"What Bobbie has meant to this football team words don't really say," Lewis said. "He's been an incredible locker room guy. An incredible guy on Sunday afternoons in those huddles. And just a big, strong, tough physical man."
Bell says his own expectations have him starting on either side and he says he'll go either place. He admits he's more comfortable on the left side, where he's started virtually all 100 of his NFL games, but he's confident he can adapt and has a lot of faith in Alexander.
Alexander spent a lot of time with Bell before the 2004 draft, when the Titans took him in the fifth round, and Bell already has an easy rapport with him.
"He's a coach guys want to play for," Bell said. "He's a legend around the league and I'm looking forward to getting in there and learning. You can be around this game a long time and you can still learn something new every day."
Bell heard from another legend along the Bengals front a few days ago when Muñoz phoned his congratulations. When Muñoz briefly got in the business of coaching and mentoring NFL prospects coming out of college, Bell was his first client. Even though he got out of that line of work rather quickly, Muñoz has occasionally kept in touch with Bell and last talked to him about a year ago before he heard about the homecoming.
"Not a great business to be in, but the one good thing about it is that we had solid guys and Jacob was one of those guys," Muñoz said. "He's a good guy and a hard worker. He was a kid who picked up things quickly and was very athletic and moves pretty well."
True, that was eight years ago. But Muñoz is impressed with both moves. He saw Wharton, a third-rounder in that '04 class, play for South Carolina when son Michael was playing tackle for Tennessee.
"With these guys," Muñoz said, "I think they're a little more versatile and athletic in the middle.
"When I was working with Jacob, we were working at both guard and tackle spots and he was adaptable."
When Bell moved from Tennessee to St. Louis in 2008, he got a huge deal by even today's standards with $13 million guaranteed of $36 million for six years. He restructured before last training camp in a deal that made him a free agent now and Lewis said, "He's happy to be what he calls almost home. He knows us, we know him and I think he likes that."
Bell knows the secret to getting comfortable on the field:
"(The right side) would obviously take some time and some repetition, but I've been in the league long enough I don't think that would be a problem."
But he's also thrilled with the intangibles of the deal. He's played just one game in Cleveland (where he proudly says he went to high school at "state champion St. Ignatius") his entire career and he loved it.
"I must have got tickets for 50 family and friends and it was great," Bell said. "I can't tell you how many people have told me they're coming down to every game in Cincinnati. I can't wait."
The other Red Hawks who have played in Miami quarterback Paul Brown's yard? Safeties JoJuan Armour and John Busing.
HOW THEY LINE UP
(With the usual complement of nine linemen, let the competition start for the final 53-man roster heading into Opening Day with these 10 players under contract…Keeping in mind more could be waiting in the draft)
G Jacob Bell - Athletic veteran of 100 NFL starts, primarily at left guard with Tennessee and St. Louis…Early favorite to start at left or right guard heading into ninth season out of Miami University…Marvin Lewis won't make call yet on position….But confident he can play pretty much anywhere...Could also play center...
RG Clint Boling - Fourth-round pick in 2011 benched after started first three games…Bengals believe with work in weight room and more reps he gives them another more athletic option than they've had…Can also play center….If doesn't start, he'll back up both guard spots.
T Anthony Collins - Fourth-round pick in 2008…Turning into key backup with 18 starts at both left and right tackle.
C Kyle Cook - After signing him to extension before last season, the Bengals feel his toughness and intelligence have continued to solidify line…According to profootballfocus.com, his 1,100 snaps were second in NFL in '11.
RG Otis Hudson - Fifth-round pick in 2010…Encouraging development slowed by last season's knee injury in training camp….Flashed in practice, has yet to appear in a game…In mix to start at right guard or back up both guards.
T Matthew O'Donnell - Very large man (6-9, 329) who spent rookie year out of Queen's in Canada on practice squad and has impressed with his movement and possibilities as a backup this season.
RT Dennis Roland - Very large fifth-year veteran (6-9, 322) known as a superb technician…Saw most of his action last year as extra tight end on running downs.
RT Andre Smith - No. 1 pick in 2009 who came into his own in first full healthy season as starter…Heads into his fourth year looking to improve consistency…Solid much of the season as he dropped from 336 pounds to 320 pounds during the season.
G Travelle Wharton - Bengals' first signing in free agency…Played all previous eight seasons on left side…Mainly at left guard but athletic enough to also start a couple of seasons for Panthers at left tackle…Opening Day marks his 100th NFL start, but which side?…Could also play center.
LT Andrew Whitworth - Had another solid season in the rollicking pass rush world of the AFC North…Despite playing with tendinitis in knee for about last 10 games…Says he's healthy…Should again contend to break through with Pro Bowl berth.