Updated: 7 p.m.
Make no mistake. Andrew Whitworth, the Bengals left tackle and de facto offensive captain, wants Andre Smith to re-sign so the offense can return a guy that has started 32 of its last 34 games and has been the right tackle for two playoff runs.
But on Monday he also gave an endorsement of backup tackles Anthony Collins and Dennis Roland and reminded everyone they split all but one of the starts when the Bengals went 10-6 and swept the AFC North in 2009.
With the NFL Draft now 72 hours away, Whitworth took a look at a team that has basically replenished its depth by integrating the last two drafts with keeping around backup and role veterans like Collins and Roland.
"I really think we're at that point. This locker room has a lot of people who can play. There's not a whole lot of locker rooms that are always that way," Whitworth said. "We have guys who start and back up who are football players. Even though we want Andre back we do have two guys who started for us. We've got a deep locker room and that's a good feeling that gives you some confidence.
"Anthony and Roland prepare every week and every year like they're going to be the guy themselves also. If something happened to myself or Dre, they're always prepared to be in there and always ready. I think in any of those situations they would be ready again."
Collins, a fourth-round pick out of Kansas who is the last man standing from the Keith Rivers '08 draft class, had seven of his career 18 starts in 2009 when the club went 6-1. While the 6-5, 317-pound Collins is generally regarded as a better pass protector and not particularly stout in the run game, Whitworth reminds that the Bengals finished ninth in the NFL in rushing in 2009.
"In '09 we were one of the top running teams in the league and Anthony and Dennis were the tackles," Whitworth said. "That's one of those label things that people who don't know a whole lot about football label him. I'm pretty sure most of the games he's played in he's won, so he can't be too bad."
The Bengals are 11-7 when Collins starts, but he's taking the quiet way out. The speculation of Smith's contract status is suffocating the run-up to the draft with both sides playing a well-heeled game of chicken.
If the draft crop runs out before the Bengals pick at No. 21, do the Bengals get one later and play him, do they fan out into a limited free-agent crop, or do they have to go back to Smith? If the Bengals take a tackle at No. 21, that would no doubt lock Smith out of the one team that has shown interest in him publicly because the pick is going be in the fold for multiple years at the rookie wage scale.
Collins shrugged Monday.
"I didn't watch the draft when I got drafted, so no, I'll be too busy doing something else with my time," Collins said. "Probably spending time with family and friends.
"I'm keeping my head down, not causing any problems. When they're ready to play me, I'm going to play. Most definitely I have experience. On both sides. There's a lot of talent in this locker room. Whatever goes on upstairs and with the draft and the coaches and all that, whenever my number is called I'm ready to play."
Collins, 27, didn't always say the right things when he came out of school. He has butted heads with the coaches at times, but the club also didn't hesitate in re-upping him for two years before last season and he spoke Monday about the maturation process.
"I've definitely grown. I've definitely matured on and off the field," he said. "I take that real serious, to know that I am a lucky one still here, still here next to (left end Robert) Geathers, the same locker going into my sixth year. I'm truly blessed."
Collins says he had a lot of help from veterans that embraced him, particularly Whitworth. Collins is the only one that can call him "Big Stank," but he says he won't say why.
"That's private," he said with a laugh. "Whit and I go way back.
"I had a couple (of mentors). Levi Jones, Big Bobbie Williams, Whitworth, T.J. Houshmandzadeh. I had a couple of them that actually looked at me and said, 'You're something else, so I'm going to take you under my wing and show you the ropes.' These were top guys. These were starters. Guys that were making noise in the game of football at the professional level. So for them to say, 'Hey, I'm coming to pick you up. Take care of your body, start eating right, seeing how I live my life so you can follow behind me,' that was big love right there."
There are no indications that the Bengals are any closer to a contract with Smith. They appear stuck in a market that has dried up for right tackles after deals for Gosder Cherlius, Phil Loadholt and Sebastian Vollmer last month. According to SB Nation, the combined deals average $5.5 million per season and $10.3 million in guaranteed money. The top left tackles this offseason signed deals that average $7.4 million per season with $18.9 million guaranteed. The negotiations are probably mired somewhere with those numbers.
Now any right tackle in the draft is being linked to the Bengals at the slightest provocation. Pro Football Talk reported that on Monday the Bengals worked out Ohio State right tackle Reid Fragel and speculated it was done to move along the Smith negotiations. But Fragel wouldn't appear to interest the Bengals as an Opening Day starter, given that he's a converted tight end.
Meanwhile, Collins shrugs.
"I'm working on getting myself better," he said. "Playing ball. Keeping my head down."