The Bengals did what contenders do this weekend in head coach Marvin Lewis's 11th NFL Draft. While knocking out their two biggest needs—running back and safety—they filled in the rest with big.
As in five of their 10 picks put their hand in the AFC North dirt. Some of them may be asked to do more, but the first thing they have to do is line up on the line. Throw in the signing of right tackle Andre Smith, and the Bengals did what contenders do.
"They are some big guys, big guys and that's good. We need big guys," Lewis said Saturday, shortly after the last belch of the seventh round coughed up Mr. Irrelevant.
"We signed a big guy yesterday. We've got to keep our big guys going. The big guys have been the spirit of this football team and they've made a huge difference. We've got to keep replenishing that. These guys get to come in here, these young linemen, with a great group of mentors, both the offensive line group and the defensive line group. There's great mentorship in that. That's outstanding."
The Bengals had a good enough weekend that they are being called the AFC North favorites after getting quarterback Andy Dalton two promising potent weapons. It didn't take long, since the Bengals took the draft's first tight end in Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert and the first running back in North Carolina's Giovani Bernard 16 picks apart in the first and second rounds.
Lewis said the two priority positions were running back and safety. So when Georgia's Shawn Williams was sitting where the Bengals thought they could get a safety in the third round if Eric Reid and Kenny Vaccaro were gone at No. 21, the draft board that has made the Bengals the toast of the recent Aprils was at it again.
"We've got some big, good-looking kids and that's a good thing. You've got to have big physical people up front, and we got that," Lewis said. "We got guys with great-looking legs and things like that; good developmental guys, as far as they can develop physically. That's important for us to keep on those guys because this is a game for big, strong, tough guys. You've got to have that and we got some more of those."
Before Saturday's fourth round began, ESPN's Ron Jaworski was voting for the Bengals for the best draft, and CBSSports.com and Foxsports.com had them as winners.
Lewis again praised how director of player personnel Duke Tobin has integrated the scouting side with the coaching side.
"We've become a much more efficient team in selections," Lewis said. "The process has been good. It's been tight. I think everybody understands it's not an emotional thing and I think that's been helpful."
By the time the Bengals took a 6-8 defensive end that runs a 4.6 40-yard dash while repping a 38 bench press in SMU's Margus Hunt with the 53rd pick, they had three of the top 21 players on their board in the fold.
Never mind that the Bengals just re-signed ends Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry for multiple years and ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are coming off good and great years, respectively.
It's nothing personal, that's just what the board said.
And the beat went on right down to their last, lonely compensatory pick in the seventh round at No. 251 when the Bengals drafted South Carolina center T.J. Johnson.
It would appear that the Bengals need another offensive lineman like they need a hole in the head. In the fifth round they had taken versatile Kansas guard Tanner Hawkinson, a guy the club thinks might be able to play all five spots. And with the first compensatory pick in the seventh the Bengals took Ohio State right tackle Reid Fragel. This after signing veteran center-guard Mike Pollak a few weeks ago.
And they could have used a cornerback or linebacker, but the board is what the board is. Big was the theme of this draft, not just in the Bengals room. But Lewis didn't think it was because of any major philosophical shift in the effort to protect and pressure the modern passing game.
"I think everyone said that going in. Prior to me getting immersed in the whole process, that was what the scuttlebutt was. Everyone was saying it was such a deep draft for offensive lineman and defensive lineman and that's how it played out," Lewis said. "I think people are going to pick the best players. If there were good-looking quarterbacks, running backs and wideouts, they would have gone at the top of the draft because people like to score points. They like balls going up and down the field. I think that still would've been the focus and the linemen would have been secondary to that."
How deep are the Bengals now? For the first time in the Lewis era, they may not start a rookie on Opening Day. Technically, tight end Jermaine Gresham didn't start the 2010 opener, but that's only because the team started the game with three wide receivers.
How deep? There is no room at the inn with OTAs still three weeks away. No more veteran safeties. No more veteran quarterbacks. It looks like the Bengals have enough running backs. Lewis is quite satisfied with that fellow named James Harrison the club signed last week after running through backers and backs and safeties.
"We signed the football player we had in this offseason," Lewis said.
How deep are the Bengals now in the character department?
A bit deeper after looking at the three rookies that took the podium Saturday.
Bernard and Hunt could star in their own movies. Bernard has overcome the death of his mother, crushing poverty, and a torn ACL. Hunt has moved from his homeland and changed sports and is still at the top of the game. Shawn Williams comes out of Georgia as a field general for a defense always stocked with pro prospects.
And Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead, a sixth-round pick, is well known for befriending a stricken seven-year-old and making him apart of the Cornhuskers program.
But even though there's no pressure to start any of these rookies, Lewis says he wouldn't mind.
"It could be that way, or it could be different based on injury," he said. "I guess what I'm saying is that I don't feel like we'd be a step back that way. I think all of these guys have the potential to be one or the other, and that's a good thing."
Lewis even went as far as to say that he could see all 10 draft picks being on the active 46-man roster at some point this season.
"I think we can utilize them all. And I think we will try to utilize them all. Every single one of these guys that we picked, I can envision them being on our 46-man roster at some point, if not early in the season. I think they have that kind of ability in them. Now, that's up to them to prove me right," Lewis said. "I don't see why we would say why any of them can't be."
Lewis knows he's looking at a hugely competitive preseason between the last two rookie classes. Last year, four of the team's top seven picks played hardly at all, either because of injury or veterans in front of them.
"These guys we drafted are going to have an opportunity to breathe on the necks of some guys that might have been on the roster last year," Lewis said. "Some of the guys last year didn't get much of an opportunity. We've got some guys who sat last year who will have a chance to see the field this year. I think that's what makes the NFL fun. I'll have the chance to roll these guys out in the preseason and watch them go to work. I think that'll be a great opportunity for our guys."
But for all the buzz the kids are bringing from the pundits, Lewis knows he needs to rely on the pros the previous drafts have brought. He is already bracing for the AFC North Favorite talk and he's countering with the notion paper never wins anything.
And his leaders have lived it.
"We have a better leadership group than what we've had. Those are my lieutenants. They know where the focus is," he said. "No one will get in their ear and push them away from what's important. They know we earn things on the field. Just like last year when we had a rough start — we didn't go in the tank, we kept working and knowing that if we did things the right way, we'd come out on top."