Bengals Notebook: Willie Anderson On Next No. 71; Bengals Hit Pause After Checking All Boxes As Draft Opens Up; RIP John Clayton

Big Willie doing his thing.
Big Willie doing his thing.

What makes Bengals all-time right tackle and Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist Willie Anderson one of today's great offensive line mentors is he's able to show you how you can do it rather than tell you what you should be able to do.

La'el Collins, the newest Bengal who is set to wear the No. 71 Anderson wore for 181 games, 12 seasons, nine 1,000-yard rushing performances, four Pro Bowls and a legacy, has been a devout follower since they met at Cowboys camp four years ago.

That was the year the Bengals swapped heavy-hitting offensive line coaches and Paul Alexander went to Dallas and Frank Pollack came to Cincinnati. Alexander brought Anderson into minicamp and training camp to work with his guys and the two No. 71s have kept in touch since via Instagram and such.

"I was able to spend some time with him and pick his brain. He's got a lot of knowledge," Collins said after signing his three-year deal. "One of the best to play the game.  He knows what it feels like when you're in a position as an offensive lineman you don't need to be in or how to put yourself in a better position. He's super knowledgeable and a great mentor."

Anderson has always been a guy Bengals tackles could call on if they wanted. Andrew Whitworth was a few lockers away for two years, Andre Smith knew he was a phone call away and Bobby Hart turned to him, too, after their first interaction in 2019 when Hart hailed him on a downtown Cincinnati street one night after Anderson had dinner and they went into a parking lot to work on technique.

Collins is the Bengals' best right tackle since Anderson's last Cincy game, a 398-yard win in Miami in 2007, and here's why via Anderson himself.

(And Anderson says, "I'm just not sugar-coating," and he never does:)

"I think he strives to be one of the best guys in the league at his position. A lot of guys play ball and want to do the right thing. Then you have the guys who want to be really good. They play like that. They practice like that. They study that way. I think he's one of those kinds of guys.

"He knows how it feels to play on an elite offensive line. That's what you want. To have a guy that understands that kind of success on an offensive line and he's been on some real good lines."

Collins certainly looks like the most powerful guy to play the spot in Cincinnati since Anderson. At 6-4, 320 pounds, he's not nearly as big as Anderson, who was a 340-pound Shaq over there, but he gives them the pop they've been missing in that spot since Andre Smith six years ago.

"He's an athletic big man. He's tough guy. He's a finisher. He plays with an attitude," Anderson said. "I think his attitude and athletic ability will bring a lot to the Bengals."

Anderson thought it was very nice for Collins to go out of his way and say how honored he is to wear No. 71 of the legend. But he doesn't have to hear that.

"It's appreciated, but these guys have to come in and make their own names," Anderson said. "He needs to come in and make six, seven Pro Bowls and outplay my legend, or whatever. Just come in and play ball and be who you are and I think what he has been doing the last couple of years with the Cowboys really helps this team."

Although the talks hit some snaps during the weekend of negotiations, Anderson had a sense it was gong to happen by the excitement in Collins' voice when he reached out to talk to him and agent Peter Schaffer to see how it was going.

"It was just the structure of the contract. I knew they'd figure it out," Anderson said. "Joe and Joe must be happy. Both Joes."

Indeed, quarterback Joe Burrow and running back Joe Mixon must be quite pleased. Mixon is now 2-0 as an upstairs lobbyist. Last year he pushed hard for the re-hiring of Pollack and Schaffer said he patched in his client for a couple of seconds on his conference call with Bengals management this weekend so he could say his piece in support of the big man.

OARS RESTING: We're at the point in free agency where Bengals president Mike Brown might say, "We're resting on our oars."

What team deserves a rest more after what the Bengals accomplished since last Monday when free agency started?

They did exactly what they set out to do by adding solid, quality starters at all three spots (a center, a guard, a tackle) on the offensive line, retained one of their two regular defensive tackles and re-upped a likely Opening Day cornerback in Eli Apple.

They had to cut center Trey Hopkins and cornerback Trae Waynes to do it, so you'd have to deduce they're probably out of the derby for defensive tackle Jarran Reed, but see how it plays out.

When the one thing happened that they didn't expect, losing tight end C.J. Uzomah, they plucked one in Hayden Hurst who has been a starter and once put up numbers that seem quite attainable with his speed in this offense.

So, if they do anything at all, it would seem there are not going to be any more major deals but complementary acquisitions. For instance, practice squad/backup wide receiver Trenton Irwin re-signed Monday and special teams ace/wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. figures to re-up.

They seem content for a veteran-free left guard competition consisting of the kids with Jackson Carman, D'Ante Smith, Trey Hill and Hakeem Adeniji in the mix and Carman getting first dibs.

(As for defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who failed a $40 million physical in Chicago, no doubt he's on their radar for later, pending how his broken foot heals.)

Last week's work on the offensive line also opens up a Bengals draft like it hasn't been open in some time. Maybe it hasn't been this wide-open since 2015, when they had the luxury of taking tackles in the first two rounds. Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher didn't pan out and since that draft they always pretty much ended up going for need in the first round.

Now it seems like any position but quarterback is on the table. Look for the mountain of mock drafts to pivot from the obligatory offensive lineman at No. 31 to start checking out defense, particularly cornerbacks and edge rushers.

RIP JOHN CLAYTON: It was fitting that the passing of pioneering pro football journalist John Clayton this past weekend battled with NFL free-agency news for the headlines.

Clayton became a headline name himself breaking news in a 45-year career that spanned covering the Steel Curtain Steelers for the local newspaper to becoming the subject for one of ESPN's more memorable commercials as one of sports' first insiders for the worldwide leader.

Clayton knew everything and everyone in the NFL because that's all he did. His idea of a vacation was spending two days working the phones at the Marriott Mission Valley. The way Clayton inhaled the beat in the '70s and '80s, keeping track of every salary and every roster in notebooks of information culled from phone calls to those with the numbers became a staple of how to cover the game once free agency hit and the NFL morphed into the national pastime at the turn of the century.

It is guys like Claytie that helped the NFL become as big as it has. Guys like Will McDonough and Claytie and Lenny Pasquarelli and Chris Mortensen and Ron Borges and Peter King. Guys who were ripping up facts and anecdotes and stats long before the information age. When the internet came to be, the NFL, with the help of the grinders, was a perfect match because these guys were already doing the unique content thing from the inside. Giving them a 24-hour cycle wasn't death, but heaven.

All of these guys were also very kind to the guys coming up behind them. Claytie, too. He never not took one of my calls. Even though he knew so much more than me, he was generous, patient and kind and when I needed a salary or an agent's number, he always came through.

But he was like that to everybody. For a while I'd always greet him with, 'You killed me with Ron Lynn." When I was covering the Bengals after the 1991 season for The Cincinnati Post, new head coach Dave Shula was putting together his staff and Claytie tipped my competitor, The Cincinnati Enquirer's Jack Brennan, that Shula was interviewing Ron Lynn for defensive coordinator. Jack had the story and Lynn got the job. I guess Claytie had known Jack longer, but he ended up giving me my share of tips. Still, he loved it when I would say, "Ron Lynn."

Claytie left me with a couple of pearls covering a beat. He'd always say there would be times where, "You need to get away from just going from the tape recorder to the keyboard. You have to do that most of the time, but there are times you just have to report without the tape recorder."

And that meant not relying on quotes, but taking the time to interpret what you were seeing and hearing.

Claytie insisted that being a good beat reporter was the one way that the powers-that-be couldn't make life miserable for you. They couldn't move you around from story to story or change your schedule or take you off the road because you had the thing wired with sources and institutional knowledge and a rolodex of the key phone numbers in your head.

"The sanctity of the beat," is what Claytie called it.

I already miss him. It's hard to think that when the league meetings open next week, Claytie won't be there saying, "Butchie, Butchie, how about your Bengals, man?" and then telling me something I already should have known about my team.

Farewell, my friend. Ron Lynn forever.

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