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Bengals Prime For Combine (Don't Forget The Defense)

Lou Anarumo is looking to improve every level of his defense.
Lou Anarumo is looking to improve every level of his defense.

The Bengals head to Indianapolis this weekend for the first prime time NFL scouting combine with the No. 1 pick in hand in what looks to be a first ballot coronation for LSU quarterback Joe Burrow.

But it's also a major event for the Bengals defense and its staff as coordinator Lou Anarumo. He continues to develop his hybrid 3-4 scheme that began to take shape last year during his first season and they hope to have a big haul picking at the top of every round.

When Anarumo arrived in Indy for the combine a year ago, he barely had enough time to exchange his interview suit for Bengals gear after joining new head coach Zac Taylor's staff.

"We're so far ahead, we're light years ahead of evaluating these guys in the draft and free agency," Taylor said. "We have a better understanding of how our personnel fits our defense and our schemes."

Burrow, of course, is the headliner. The Heisman Trophy winner from just down the road in Athens, Ohio, is scheduled to meet the media Tuesday at about 9 a.m., before he sits down with the Bengals for his formal interview that is expected to include team president Mike Brown.

Amid the noise surrounding Burrow and the Bengals, Taylor doesn't see himself or the organization trying to sell itself to Burrow or the other potential No. 1s.

"No," Taylor said. "We believe in what we're doing here and you talk to anyone in this building and they would echo that. Players, coaches, personnel, everybody believes in what we're doing. We're excited to get to know these guys. Let them feel our energy and what we're all about."

The Burrow interview is one of 45 the Bengals are allotted by the league, 15 fewer than the past because the workouts and testing are now in prime time on NFL Network. The sessions are slightly longer, about 18 minutes, but Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin admits "it's not ideal," to lose 15 interview slots. More often than not the Bengals select players in the early rounds that they've met with in Indy.

It's a blow softened by the Bengals coaching last month's Senior Bowl, which not only put them in daily contact with many of the combine players on the South but also allowed exclusive access to the North prospects. Still, it's the first time they get to speak to so many players and the new schedule won't alter their routine by much.

"We're equipped to handle it better than some only because we had them at the Senior Bowl and that's a real benefit to us," Tobin said. "Our focus is still trying to get in front of the guys we're heavily interested in. We try to cover most position groups. It's never a determining factor whether we had that 18 minutes with him or not. We get time at pro days, which is valuable. Sometimes we visit campus or there are times we can bring him to Cincinnati."

For instance, before the draft the Bengals can visit Burrow, or any prospect for that matter, at three sites. At LSU, in his hometown of Athens and Paul Brown Stadium. But the combine is always convenient, although the Bengals always seem to be trying to make the room smaller in the name of efficiency. Along with Tobin and his scouts are ownership, Taylor, a coordinator and a position coach, along with a psychologist, so it's far from a breezy little wine-and-cheese bit. The interviews have moved this year from the players' hotel to Lucas Oil Stadium, so there could be some more space for the talks.

"We like to involve the scouting process so we can make informed recommendations," Tobin said. "The combine interview is a part of that. We don't have restrictions. What we tell our guys is if there are questions to be asked we normally get to them in that setting. And there are often things we want to follow up with after the combine at pro days. Ultimately it's a chance to kind of put the personality with what we know about him on the field."

The interviews have moved from the players' hotel to Lucas Oil Stadium, so there could be some more room.

Everyone is interested in how the players will react to the night workouts.

"Sure it's a difference," Tobin said. "It's the difference between a 1 p.m. Sunday game and a Monday night game. The national audience should be a benefit to the players. They should like that in terms of a prime-time audience. We'll see how it goes from a logistical standpoint."

Anarumo is certainly looking for prime-time players, but he won't get specific. What we do know is that after the late, rough start, the defense played better the longer it was at it. In the first half of the season they gave up the most yards in the league. During the last half of the season they were ranked very near the middle of the pack at No. 17.

"The idea is to get better at all three levels. There's a bunch of different things I think we need to improve, but you start with helping all three levels." Anarumo said.

If you think that sounds like best available player, you're probably right. Linebacker is clearly the biggest need, but with starters William Jackson (shoulder surgery) and Dre Kirkpatrick (knee) coming off injuries and Darqueze Dennard a free agent, cornerback has to be addressed at some point. Their two best pass rushers, one inside and one outside, are older than 30, and that's going to get a look. It looks like they can hold the fort with safeties Shawn Williams and Jessie Bates III.

The Bengals may not be able to quench their thirst for linebackers in this draft and the corners are going to go fast, although they may be able to make some hay up front. Anarumo points out that his 3-4 is interchangeable because 65 to 70 percent of the time they're in some kind of a four-man line on passing downs.

So he's not looking for a classic 4-3 end like left end Carlos Dunlap or 3-4ish right end like Sam Hubbard. What he's looking for are three traits in those guys. No. 1 is pass-rushing ability.

"Who can affect the quarterback the most? That's the premium," Anarumo said. "And then, who can set the edge on the run? Then, oh by way, if they can drop a little in coverage, that would be great. Those three things are what comes into evaluating outside backers slash college defensive ends that potentially translate into an outside linebacker. There's a ton of them out there in free agency and the draft. We've got some pretty darn good ones on our team in Sam Hubbard, Carl Lawson, Carlos Dunlap."

Lawson is a prime example of how Anarumo's scheme has impacted players. After dabbling at linebacker early in his rookie year, Lawson became solely a nickel rush end in his first two seasons. Under Anarumo, Lawson began dropping some as the season went on. In his second season, Hubbard had to sharpen up his dropping skills from Ohio State.

Anarumo isn't looking for a certain peg to fit into a certain hole.

"Those guys come in all shapes and sizes," Anarumo said. "Just look at the best. Von Miller (6-3, 250 pounds), Khalil Mack (6-3, 252), Bud Dupree (6-4, 269). They're all different sizes, height, weight and speed. But at the end of the day those guys that go from playing outside linebacker in base to defensive end in sub defenses, they're all the same guys. Look at Matthew Judon in Baltimore (6-3, 261). There's Carlos (6-6, 280). They have to be able to rush the passer No. 1 and set an edge on the run No. 2 and if they can drop a little bit, that's great."

It sounds like the Bengals are going to be more active in free agency than they have in the past, but Tobin is cautious because there is no market yet to be read and, well, he's not going to say much else because it is the biggest poker game of the year. The stakes open in mid-March.

"The plan is try and put together the best roster we can find and it's not something we proclaim in advance," Tobin said.

For the past several years the Bengals have kept their signing of unrestricted free agents to a minimum in an effort to gather extra draft picks. But Tobin said that hasn't been a ram-rod principle.

"It's not a driving force. It's something to be aware of when we're going through the process, but it's not an overriding factor," Tobin said. "We want to build the best team. At times that requires looking at players from other teams and sometimes extending players on your own team. It's not easily predictable and we haven't been able to sit down yet with a player or an agent."

Next week they'll have 18 minutes to sit and talk. Offense is always going to get the headlines now and 10 years from now when they talk about this draft. But with the defense more settled this time around and picking at the top of each round, it may have a big impact, too.