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Bengals Host A Slice Of March Madness During A Free Agent Friday

New Bengals tight end Hayden Hurst meets the press Friday.
New Bengals tight end Hayden Hurst meets the press Friday.

Ted Karras, one of the growing number of new and potential new Bengals, ended what he called his most comfortable first day of school ever when he asked Bengals equipment scion Tyler "Trunk," Runk for a football to go along with his bag of welcome goodies.

That was on Thursday. Now we know why.

On Friday the Bengals released their Opening Day center for the last three seasons, Trey Hopkins, and then introduced Karras as his successor. It turns out that Karras was doing what he always does when it comes to his job and that's due diligence as he prepares to become the only man to take a snap with both Joe Burrow and Tom Brady.

"Anyway they want it, they can have it. They're the type of guys we're looking for," said ebullient Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack, observing that Karras and his new right guard, Alex Cappa, both ordered their Steak Burrows medium rare during Thursday night's dinner at The Precinct with No. 9 himself.

"I warned him," Karras said before he ordered. " 'Dude, I'm not getting weird or anything.' It was good."

It remains to be seen how pricey the next course in the Bengals free-agent buffet is going to be as Paul Brown Stadium churned Friday with a more sedate form of March Madness.

Estimable players came and went in a roster blur that cost them one of their long-time success stories, the 2014 undrafted Hopkins who overcame a devastating broken leg as a rookie and 2020's torn ACL to start 67 games at three different spots and was known as the offensive line's brainy nerve center.

"The ultimate pro," Pollack said.

 They look to be flirting with serving a tray of turnovers by completely flipping the right side of the offensive line and are in talks with a Pollack disciple in former Cowboys right tackle La'el Collins. The Bengals didn't deny reports Collins was in the building Friday and instead got a strong endorsement from his old offensive line coach in Dallas.

"I had a great relationship with L.C. Love him to death," Pollack said. "He definitely fits the mold of glass-eater. Watch his tape. That's clearly evident. He's nasty. He's a lot of fun to coach. We'll see where all that goes."

It's going into Friday night By all accounts, he was a hit with everyone he met as the Bengals look to keep a third straight bountiful free agency going.

While also hosting productive veteran defensive tackle Jarran Reed, the Bengals introduced their new starting tight end. Edge rusher Trey Hendrickson remains the richest Bengals free agent ever, Hayden Hurst may be the happiest.

Hurst, a first-round pick of the Ravens in 2018 whose career has never taken off in stints in Baltimore and Atlanta, says the match with Burrow and his wide receivers "re-lights my passion," and says, "I think everything is going to come together in my fifth year."

The Bengals turned to Hurst when C.J. Uzomah stunned them by going to the Jets on a three-year, $24 million deal. In a numbers game that almost made too much sense, the Bengals got a player for a year at a reported $3.5 million who is similarly aged (Hurst turns 29 in the preseason) and had a better year in 2020 (56 catches, 571 yards, six touchdowns) than the career year Uzomah had in 2021 with 49 catches for 493 yards and five touchdowns.

The Bengals point to Hurst sharing the field with Pro Bowlers on the Ravens (Mark Andrews in 2018 and 2019) and the Falcons (Kyle Pitts in 2021) as a reason for low numbers. They like his above average hands and explosion down the field.

"People forget how quick I am. I was the 25th pick in the draft for a reason," said Hurst, freely admitting he's got a few chips on his shoulder. "I showed what I could do in a starting role in Atlanta in 2020. C.J. is an incredible player. He did tremendous things in Cincinnati. I know I'm stepping into a void. I think I'm more than capable. I showed that in 2020."

Asked just how fast he is, Hurst recalled a play in his second season in Baltimore. It was the longest catch of his career, a 61-yarder that he said he was timed at 21 miles per hour for the fastest play of the season on an offense with quarterback Lamar Jackson and wide receiver Hollywood Brown.

Hurst thinks Burrow can exploit his matchups on linebackers and safeties.

"You saw what he did last year. An incredible player," Hurst said. "He's the future of this league To be in an offense with him, Ja'Marr (Chase), Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, Joe Mixon, I'm excited as hell to be here."

Hurst loved the straight pitch from head coach Zac Taylor after he says he was promised things with the Falcons that didn't happen. He says Taylor reached out to one of the tight ends in Atlanta last year, Lee Smith. It appears that Smith crossed paths with Taylor's brother Press when they played at Marshall a dozen years ago.

"He kind of sang my praises to him and Zac ended up calling me and it was a pretty quick process," Hurst said. "(Taylor) is extremely authentic. That's hard to come by in this business as I've found out in my four years in the NFL. It's very refreshing to hear. Very transparent."

There's nothing more genuine than a pair of hard-bitten veteran offensive linemen who both have Super Bowl rings. As Taylor pointed out, Karras (two with the Patriots) and Cappa (one with the Buccaneers) have three Super Bowl rings between them after a year their top five free agents all brought postseason experience.

"It doesn't hurt," Taylor said.

But after coming within 39 seconds of winning the Super Bowl last month, the Bengals now have playoff experience everywhere.

"It's not like they're far off," Cappa said of what his experience can add. "It's a long season and we're not going to get back just because we went last year."

Three weeks before the Rams broke the Bengals' heart, they did the same to the Bucs in the last minute of an NFC Divisional game. Cappa shrugged off Tom Brady's return from retirement coming a day before he agreed with the Bengals.

"I'll keep my conversations with Tom private," Cappa said. "It was awesome playing with him and I'm looking forward to being with Joe."

Steven Radicevic, the Bengals director of pro scouting who signed Cappa, pulled him aside Friday and told him about scouting him out of California's tiny Humboldt College in 2018. He told him he was the hardest player he ever had to evaluate because Cappa was so dominant and elite and the competition was, kindly, not.

Cappa, who went in the third round, said that rookie year in Tampa Bay was a huge adjustment and he didn't feel like he got settled until his second season. Radicevic has followed his career especially closely and has been so impressed with his hard work and talent that has overcome the small school obstacles.

One of the reasons is because he appears to have the constitution suited for a stadium nicknamed, "The Jungle." Cappa never got to play in his Super Bowl because he broke his ankle in the two-minute drill at the end of the half in the 2020 Wild Card.

And he tried to play with it.

"I got rolled up and I didn't think it was broken. I tried to pop up," Cappa said. "I didn't want to take a timeout, so I tried to get up. But I took too long and they had to take a timeout. I went into halftime and they taped it up. They said, 'You good?' I said, 'Yeah, I'm good.' But I wasn't. I tried to warm up and I couldn't and they took me back in for an X-Ray and it was broken. I tried."

Just the kind of "glass-eater," Pollack loves. He also likes them to put a little versatility on the window pane and that's why he loved Karras' center tape.

"His footwork, to be honest with you, jumped out at me," Pollack said. "I was impressed with how efficient his footwork was. He's good at ID'ing and communicating. He's really at that stuff and loves that part of it.

"And how productive he was. He's a flexible guy. He's been productive at all three spots. He's not a center that can get you out of a game at guard or a guard converted to center. He's a starter in all three spots on the inside and been productive in the NFL. That's been pretty impressive."

Karras was pretty much a right guard at Illinois until the Patriots got him in the sixth round and moved him around. He was Brady's last center in New England in 2019 before moving to Miami and playing center there in 2020 and then came back to New England last year to play some more guard.

Center, he says, has two challenges.

"You have your hands on the ball and if you don't get (the call) right, we're wrong," he said. "You have to get it right.

Which is why he asked Trunk for a ball.

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