Mike Mayock, the NFL Network's scouting guru, gets to see the Bengals' handiwork in the last several drafts up close and personal when he's in the booth for their Thursday game (8:20 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12 and NFL Network) in Philadelphia.
Mayock's film study has made his board in the months leading up to the draft a must for media and fans and even before seeing them live he's already impressed with Cincinnati's haul in the last three drafts, ranking its take near the top of the league. But he may be even more impressed with the three rookie free agents that didn't make anyone's board and are either going to start or take a lot of snaps against the Eagles.
As Notre Dame's TV analyst, Mayock saw center Trevor Robinson's college snaps. He salutes starting WILL backer Vontaze Burfict and how the Bengals made him draftable. And he's so taken with backup WILL backer Emmanuel Lamur that he plans to go back to the tape to see what he missed "because I barely remember the kid."
"Trust me, I think it's huge," Mayock says of Cincinnati's work in college free agency. "Whether it's the scouts, or the scouts and the coaches, or a combination. All I know is that organizationally it looks like they've been getting it right for the last three years."
The Bengals rolled out 17 home-grown starters last Sunday against Dallas, 10 of them on offense. Among them were two of their picks from 2006 in left tackle Andrew Whitworth and defensive tackle Domata Peko. The Bengals are going pound-for-pound with the teams they're chasing in the AFC.
Division rival Pittsburgh, the team tied with the Bengals for the AFC's final wild card spot, had 21 home-grown starters against San Diego last week with only safety Ryan Clark the outsider while AFC North leader Baltimore went with eight starters on offense and eight on defense in its game in Washington.
And in Monday night's first test to see who gets the top seed in the AFC, Houston started 13 Texans (seven offense, six defense) in New England against 15 born Patriots, seven on offense and eight on defense.
Mayock is particularly impressed with the last two Bengals rookie classes, of which six are represented on offense, and he went to the middle of the line right away with Robinson at center, first-rounder Kevin Zeitler at right guard and 2011 fourth-rounder Clint Boling at left guard.
"Boling and Zeitler are solid young players and Robinson is a real solid signing," Mayock says. "He played a lot of snaps at Notre Dame and he's a smart, tough kid and he has played well. If you look at the interior, they're either rookies or second-year players and they're playing pretty solidly. You have to like those guys. And Jermaine Gresham (the first-round pick in 2010) is turning into a quality tight end."
Then Mayock goes back to the 2011 draft when the Bengals saved their franchise in a span of 24 hours by picking wide receiver A.J. Green No. 4 and quarterback Andy Dalton No. 35.
"A.J. Green didn't have the best game last week. He had some drops I didn't like, but it's hard to argue with that one," Mayock says. "I think Dalton is right where he should be. He hasn't backtracked, but he has to continue to improve. He can be a very effective quarterback in this league. I like his intelligence and his work ethic."
On his receiver board Mayock was a little leery of Rutgers wide receiver Mohamed Sanu's speed and the polish of California's Marvin Jones and they went right about where he had them in the third and fifth rounds, respectively.
But before Sanu suffered a season-ending broken foot last month, Mayock was convinced the Bengals had found a solid regular and he's impressed with how Jones "showed up last week."
"When you watched Sanu at Rutgers he was one of those kids you loved on tape but you didn't like the stopwatch. You had to look beyond the stopwatch, which the Bengals have and he's a football player," Mayock says. "He doesn't have good speed, but he catches it and he'll block it and he works at it. That's what he did at Rutgers. He was the Wildcat. He did everything at Rutgers.
"And if you look at Marvin Jones, that's pretty good, too. They're two different kinds of players. Sanu is a little more solid with great hands and Jones gives you a little more upfield push to him like that (37-yard) run last week off the reverse."
As for the front four, Mayock lines it up like pretty much everybody else in and out of the league. He says defensive tackle Geno Atkins (fourth round, 2010) is "a great find," and compares him to Pro Football Hall of Famer John Randle.
"Their front four depth on defense might be as good as it is in the entire league," Mayock says. "Geno Atkins has turned into a beast.
"They have a wave of defensive players. (Right end) Michael Johnson flashes. He's not as consistent as I'd like him to be. (Left end) Carlos Dunlap is turning into a real good football player. Obviously you'd like to see (2012 second- and third-rounders) Devon Still and Brandon Thompson get the reps, but they're playing so well in the front that it's hard for that."
But Mayock says "the eye openers" are Burfict and Lamur ("however you pronounce his name") at linebacker. With three-down linebacker Thomas Howard out since the second game of the year, the 6-4, 230-pound Lamur has been slowly moved into the nickel package and played 12 snaps last Sunday while Burfict became a starter in Week 2. When middle linebacker Rey Maualuga got banged up last Sunday Burfict was able to move inside with Lamur getting into the mix.
"You have to beat the drum for Paul Guenther," Mayock says of the Bengals linebackers coach. "(Burfict) is having a great year and (Lamur) is starting to get more snaps. That's pretty damn impressive. I don't know any team in the league that gets as many snaps out of two rookie college free agents."
Mayock is going to do what he didn't do when Lamur came out of Kansas State.
"I'm going to go back and look at the tape to see what I missed," Mayock says. "He's long and he's got running ability."
Mayock's declaration that Burfict was "undraftable" coming out of Arizona State turned out to be one of those chicken-or-the-egg deals. It upset Burfict, but it shows how Mayock's fingers are on the pulse of the league's draft rooms as well as the faith he puts in his tape watching.
Now it comes full circle for Burfict this Thursday. In his 12th start, which gives him the team record for starts by a college free agent, he can show Mayock why he should have been drafted high. But Mayock doesn't knock the scouting reports, instead crediting Guenther and the coaching staff for getting Burfict into shape and sharpening his discipline to elicit the talent everyone knew he had.
It always comes full circle for Mayock because there is always another draft and he's already got his eyes on what the Bengals need next.
"If there is one need on offense, where I'd bang the table is for a top 10 (NFL)-type tailback; that would really help," Mayock says. "I think (BenJarvus) Green-Ellis is a real solid player, but I think in the Bengals division with their quarterback, I think you need a top 10 or 12 tailback."
Mayock says Dalton's development hinges on the improvement of the running game. He's simply not the type of quarterback that can muscle a team through a defense with pure passing. But he can win with varied weapons.
"I go back to the whole run game thing," Mayock says. "The Bengals are middle of the road offensively, 14th running and passing. To me, I don't think you want Andy Dalton sitting in shotgun 30 times a game. That's not who he is. However, with a real good run game, play-action, push the ball down the field in the occasional shotgun, I think he can be a very effective quarterback in this league. I like him, but I just think they need to continue to develop the run game."
If the trend continues, the Bengals will get that back in this draft. Maybe even with one of the picks they got from the Raiders in the Carson Palmer trade. It may be right in Dalton country at around No. 35 at the top of the second round.
"When you look at their last few drafts from an organizational standpoint, you've got to be pretty positive that the young talent level on this team is good," Mayock says.