Bengals hang with board

Posted: 1:10 a.m.

If Keith Rivers is the safe, solid pick on and off the field for a team needing athleticism at linebacker and character in the locker room and a potential unifying figure in the middle, then Coastal Carolina wide receiver Jerome Simpson is the seemingly quintessential horse player hunch plucked from the fifth round.

(And if it doesn't pan out, the Bengals will be reminded of it twice a year because right behind them the Steelers took the more high-profile Limas Sweed of Texas.)

(And Saturday joins the long list of days the big defensive tackle escaped Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis again at the 11th hour. The loss of Sedrick Ellis comes on the heels of losing veteran Shaun Rogers and Dewayne Robertson when both were seemingly in the fold.)

But Saturday's first two selections in the NFL Draft show what the Bengals were dealing with in a draft that has numbed many with its lack of elite players that blurred the decision-making process and impacted their decision not to trade picks in order to move up.

And it figures to continue into Sunday, when the Bengals have eight picks in the final five rounds.

The Bengals pick 14th in the round with such intriguing players on the board that could meet more needs, such as Texas running back Jamaal Charles, Auburn defensive tackle Pat Sims, and, yes, a big school receiver in Florida's Andre Caldwell.

Don't get too excited about Penn State linebacker Dan Connor. There are indications that the Bengals envision Rivers as the heady, reliable, fast and versatile middle linebacker they've been missing in Lewis' six seasons. If they can flank him with Ahmad Brooks on the strong side and Odell Thurman on the weak, it would give them a breathtaking brew of first-round talent at the position.

Ellis' height of 6-0 bothered some. Pass rusher Derrick Harvey didn't fit with two young defensive ends already in the fold and, besides, Jacksonville gave up gold to get him when it moved up from 26 to get him at No. 8. Leodis McKelvin would have been the third straight cornerback taken with the team's first pick. Although Rivers can play all three backer spots, only four linebackers had been taken in the top 10 this decade before the Bengals took him.

So the grades were so close and the dropoff so great that the Bengals decided not to use a third-round pick like New Orleans did at 10 to trade up with New England to take Ellis at No. 7. Head coach Marvin Lewis thinks his team will need that 77th player, its first pick Sunday, to play this year and start next year.

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Lewis

"It seemed to happen all together. It wasn't like we had a big difference in how we had the guys ranked," Lewis said. "When we got to that point there were four players left that fit us pretty well."

It didn't take long for the Bengals' two newest coaches to make an appearance at the draft. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald showed up in the press room after the first pick, and FitzGerald explained why Rivers can become a difference-maker.

"What makes him up? It's the fact that he's got a lot of ability to do a lot of different things, position as well as responsibility-wise and the different areas that linebackers are responsible for," he said. "It's going to allow Coach Zimmer, as well, to know what he's able to do and to mix that in with the linebackers that are already here. We're going to have a good mix of guys that are going to have a lot of different capabilities, which ultimately lends you to some flexibility in terms of what you're doing. Opponents are going to have to deal with having those types of threats each week."

There was clearly a difference how the Bengals graded the big-name receivers compared to Simpson, and rarity was also used as a measuring stick.

And all of the big names had a big nick for an NFL receiver.

Sweed and Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly didn't run fast. Cal's Desean Jackson was too small. Michigan's Mario Manningham was too checkered.

At nearly 6-2, 200 pounds, a 4.45 40-yard dash and passel of jumps, leaps and one-handed catches, Simpson passed the size and speed test. The Bengals tried to trade down a few spots once they saw the clutch of receivers still left, but this isn't the draft to do that.

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Bratkowski

"When you look at small schools, you look for the productivity," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "He had the productivity with 44 career touchdowns, and he had the measurables. When he got to the combine, he had the longest long jump, he had the longest arms, the biggest hands, and his speed and jumps were at the top end of any of the receivers in the league. Then you say, 'He's a workout wonder.' He's not a workout wonder, because of his productivity. There's always a difference. If you look at the productivity of some of the 'workout wonders,' it wouldn't match. This matches."

The Bengals need him to play right now and the pundits think that's an open question because of the lack of competition in the Big South Conference. But Lewis, who says he spent hours watching tape of receivers, is convinced.

"When picking a receiver this early, he needs to come in and fill a void," Lewis said. "We wanted to find a guy who we felt had the stature to be able to do that and to have the physical tools to get away from bump-and-run coverage and things like that.

"There were a lot of guys coming into the draft with a lot of hoopla, but for some reason, their measurables didn't end up the same physically. Guys like this did. It's been an interesting process, seeing some of the receivers early in this round over some of the ones who have been written about all year."

The one thing Rivers and Simpson have in common is character, which can be an over-the-hump trait when there are few physical standouts. Both were elected team captains and were the subject of coaches' effusive praise.

Simpson cleanly caught one question about his past, an incident at the end of the victory over Charleston Southern in which Pro Football Weekly said he was reprimanded by the Big South conference for using obscenities at the foes' sidelines.

"Some reporter from the opposing team said I was talking some trash to some fans. I never got reprimanded," Simpson said. "The commissioner called me and we talked and nothing ever happened. We beat them. They just didn't want us to go to the playoffs. They tried to get me off my game."

Playing in the glare of Los Angeles while Simpson toiled in the not so Big South, Rivers also survived scrutiny.

"It was never really talked about too much with me because I've shown that I can stay out of trouble (while) playing in a big city," Rivers said. "We talked about it, but I'm a strong character guy, and it's something I value."

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