Bengals toe (D) line

4-9-02, 4:15 p.m.


(Another in a series of stories breaking down the April 20-21 NFL Draft by position. Rankings are a compilation of evaluations from ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., Pro Football Weekly's Joel Buchsbaum and Jerry Jones of The Drugstore List.)

After a grueling season in which they played the NFL's top six run defenses in 10 games last year, the Bengals know first hand the value of a relentless and deep front line.

Which is one of the big reasons they are seriously considering taking a defensive lineman with their first-round pick for the second straight year.

Last year, right end Justin Smith was one of seven defensive linemen who went in the first 13 picks. Draft gurus expect the same kind of run this year. And at No. 10, the Bengals will be right in the middle of a blitz that will yield four blue-chip tackles in Tennessee's Albert Haynesworth and John Henderson , North Carolina's Ryan Sims and Wisconsin's Wendell Bryant.

Bryant is of particular interest in Paul Brown Stadium because they think he can make the switch from inside to outside and give them a shot of youth at left end.

Top 10 Defensive LinemenNAMESCHOOLHTWTJulius PeppersN.Carolina6-6285

  <td height="14" width="157">Ryan Sims</td>
  <td height="14" width="54">N.Carolina</td>
  <td height="14" width="38">6-4</td>
  <td height="14" width="39">310</td>
  <td height="14" width="157">Albert Haynesworth</td>
  <td height="14" width="54">Tennessee</td>
  <td height="14" width="38">6-6</td>
  <td height="14" width="39">320</td>

Wendell BryantWisconsin6-4305John HendersonTennessee6-7310Kalimba EdwardsS.Carolina6-5265Dwight FreeneySyracuse6-1270Anthony WeaverNotre Dame6-3295Larry TripplettWashington6-1305Eddie FreemanAla-Birm6-5310

"We're going to be looking right in the eyes of what we think are three top-notch defensive linemen," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of pro/college personnel. "That kind of guy is just so rare. You don't bypass people at other positions who

are better at their trade to reach for another position just to fill a need."

The Bengals won't be reaching at No. 10 if cornerback Phillip Buchanon or safety Roy Williams is there. But with left end Vaughn Booker aging, the tackle depth thin, and Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon's first sub four-yard-per-carry-season of his life against a bunch of mountain men fresh in their minds, defensive line has become as important as corner and safety in the Bengals' draft room.

"If you can't stop the run, it's hard to win," said Duke Tobin, the club's director of pro/college personnel. "Teams that run the ball control field position and basically the game. Injuries always seem to be a factor there for almost every team and it's a position where you need to roll guys through."

Forget North Carolina end Julius Peppers. He's the best two-way player on the board and most likely goes to the hometown Panthers at No. 2. And maybe forget about his teammate, Sims, who probably isn't going to get past Minnesota at No. 7. Whatever happens, "we're going to have a chance to get one of those linemen and they're unique enough that you might have to do it," Tobin said.

Bryant already got a little bit of ink last month when fellow Wisconsin product Tim Krumrie worked him out at Madison. Krumrie, the Bengals defensive line coach whose wrestling matches with prospects became a part of NFL scouting lore after last year's bout with Justin Smith, put on a donnybrook with Bryant that made all the papers.

One footnote to the story: Smith, who came out a year early, and Bryant were the most sought after prep defensive linemen in Missouri.

People were impressed Bryant lasted a little more than six minutes in "the ring," with Krumrie, which should alleviate some concerns scouts have about Bryant's "mental toughness." As one Bengals coach said, "put the tape on against Penn State this year and he was plenty tough mentally to dominate a game."

Lippincott thinks Bryant's quickness, athleticism and ability to push off make him an ideal candidate to move to end. Although Tobin wishes there has been more game-to-game consistency, the verdict is "he's a big-time talent."

So are Haynesworth and Henderson, although Haynesworth is coming out a year early under a cloud of questions about his maturity. Buchsbaum goes as far to say he needs to be pushed, isn't a self-starter, and plays too high."

"When you watch him on tape, it's real easy to get over what ever questions there might be on him," Lippincott said. "He's an explosive, strong, and agile guy with a real good change of direction. You're talking about a guy 320 pounds who can't be moved in there. He's a force against the run."

Tobin says his teammate, Henderson, is more mature than Haynesworth at the moment, but he also knows Henderson is a year older and that "young guys grow up." Lippincott liked what he saw from Henderson at a visit to Knoxville during the season.

Henderson didn't have nearly the Outland Trophy season he had in 2000 because he would have been the first overall pick in the draft if he did. But Lippincott won't hold an early-season ankle injury from the Syracuse game against him.

"I was down there when he was on crutches after one game and then he played the next week," Lippincott said. "The game does mean something to him. Toward the end of the year when his ankle was better, he started to look like his old self. You can't just look at 2001 with these guys. Remember, 2000 was quite a successful endeavor for him."

At 6-7, Henderson isn't as athletic and he doesn't play with as much leverage as Haynesworth. And he's not as strong as Sims, the man the Bengals figure is probably the strongest of the four tackles. But Henderson has a rep as an effort player and along with his huge wingspan and just plain size, he would be a force in a rotation with Oliver Gibson and Tony Williams in the Cincinnati middle.

And gurus such as Jerry Jones think Henderson can also play at left end.

The Bengals love Gibson and Williams. But the guys playing behind them, Glen Steele and Bernard Whittington, aren't pure run-stoppers and are probably more suited for end.

But the Bengals are set enough at rush end with Smith and Reinard Wilson that they most likely aren't going to chase the next tier of linemen in Syracuse end Dwight Freeney and South Carolina end Kalimba Edwards.

"If you've just signed Reinard Wilson, you're not going to sit him on the bench," Jones said.

The thinking is if the Bengals don't opt for one of the four blue-chip tackles in the first round, they will wait and pick off a defensive tackle in the last three rounds or so. But depth is a worry. In the 3.5 games that Williams missed with a foot injury, the Bengals gave up more than 200 yards rushing twice.

Jones sees a few ends who might be available in the second round and can also play tackle, such as Alabama-Birmingham's Eddie Freeman and Washington's Larry Tripplett.

But No. 10 in the first round could also be the last call for a big run-stopper. Which also means the Bengals could get a call from a team looking to trade up (the Colts at No. 11, the Cardinals at No. 12, the Raiders at Nos. 21 and 23?) in their bid to overhaul struggling defenses.

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