The Bengals' scouting party heads to Indianapolis for the NFL's week-long combine Wednesday with the distinct possibility that the team coached by defensive guru Marvin Lewis could select its third offensive first-round pick in his fourth NFL draft. The list of talented tight ends could be longer than those of defensive tackles and cornerbacks at No. 24, but with the draft still more than two months off it can all change. Bengals.com takes a look at the Bengals' defense and who might be able to help a unit that will be bolstered by the return of free safety Madieu Williams.
DEFENSIVE TACKLES (4 signed for '06:)** John Thornton, Bryan Robinson, Shaun Smith, Matthias Askew.
They played well enough to win against the run even when Robinson (foot) went down for the last six games and Smith, 24, stepped in at 320 pounds and decently held the point of attack. Robinson and Thornton are solid on the field and in the locker room and Smith is emerging, but they would no doubt like to get younger here with Thornton (30) and Robinson (32) both hitting 30 by midseason.
If Askew had panned out, no one would be talking about taking a first-round tackle, but he didn't and is clearly on the bubble heading into his third season. If they take a first-rounder, you have to feel that they would keep Thornton and Robinson because of their experience in a rotation, plus they couldn't afford a salary cap hit on releasing Thornton.
POSSIBLE PICKS: Oregon junior Haloti Ngata is the one guy that won't be there for sure at No. 24, but Michigan's Gabe Watson and Florida State's Brodrick Bunkley very well could be. Jerry Jones, the Bengals' long-time draft observer who publishes the draft survey "The Drugstore List," is cautious about the 6-3, 334-pound Watson's down-to-down intensity, but he likes his agility and Scouts Inc. has him rated the second tackle behind Ngata on their 32-man big board at No. 25. You know there is a pocket of Bengaldom that just loves that size, but Watson also has to watch his weight, and that's not exactly a Marvin trait.
"You've got to look at a guy like Bunkley who has such tremendous numbers," says Jones of the 6-2, 286-pounder. "He was right there at 10 sacks and 20 tackles for loss and that's exactly what you need at that spot with that kind of penetration. He'd have no trouble getting up to 300 pounds."
There are fast-rising guys like Miami of Florida's Orien Harris (ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., has him rated second behind Ngata after his fast finish), and Virginia Tech's Jonathan Lewis has been rated high all preseason. The next two months are going to be about guys like that, as well as LSU's Claude Wroten, trying to prove they're first-round guys. Harris had the slow start, Lewis is just 6 feet, and Wroten had an off-field incident.
The mock draft of Scouts Inc., has the Bengals taking Wroten at No. 24, but that probably won't happen if Georgia tight end Leonard Pope is available, as he is in their scenario.
DEFENSIVE ENDS (4): Justin Smith, Robert Geathers, Duane Clemons, Jonathan Fanene: Fanene can play tackle and they're high on him after an encouraging rookie season, but it's unclear if Carl Powell is going to return as a guy that can play both. With Clemons turning 32 in May, coming off a two-sack season, and heading into the last year of a deal paying him $1.35 million, he's very much on the bubble.
They're looking for Geathers to return to his rookie form after a sophomore season of transition in which he started for the first time as well as got his first snaps at tackle on passing downs. Smith is coming off another productive year with a team-high six sacks and fourth-best 92 tackles.
No, they don't have the double-digit sack guy (or do they in David Pollack?) and, yes, they need to get more heat on the passer from the front four. But several times down the stretch they rushed just three and felt they were successful at times confusing quarterbacks and clogging passing lanes. But they know that pressure is a big answer and they also know that Smith is going into the last year of his contract.
POSSIBLE PICKS: You won't get the pass rusher at No. 24. North Carolina's Mario Williams, Penn State's Tamba Hali, and Virginia Tech's Darryl Tapp are going to be gone because they can rush the passer. A guy like Boston College's Mathias Kiwanuka has fallen off at least Kiper's big board, but he remains ranked No. 26 by Scouts Inc. The guy is a great talent and has great size (he's 6-5), but he needs a lot of polishing and they've just walked down that road with Askew.
If one of the pass rushers fell. . .but it never happens. **
LINEBACKERS (6): ** Brian Simmons, Odell Thurman, David Pollack, Landon Johnson, Caleb Miller, Rashad Jeanty.
They'd like to re-sign backups Marcus Wilkins and Hannibal Navies, but it looks like backup middle linebacker Nate Webster is the odd man out with the emergence of Thurman and the fact that Johnson also made 10 starts in the middle as a rookie.
Thurman led the team in tackles in a legit Rookie of the Year run, Pollack got better as the year went as both an end and strong side linebacker, and they finally hope to see Miller's speed and smarts after his first two years in the league have been marred by injury.
Simmons, the weak-side backer, turns 31 in June but his $2.8 million salary only gets him in trouble if he isn't starting and no one has made a run at him yet. Johnson can be groomed for that spot, but he plays a lot any way on third down.
At 6-3, 230 pounds, Jeanty is an intriguing guy. He turns 23 in April and already has 37 pro games and 14 sacks under his belt as a defensive end in the CFL. He'll be asked to do what Pollack does, play both end and linebacker, and they're interested to see how he handles the adjustment.
POSSIBLE PICKS: After selecting four First Day backers in the last two drafts, it just doesn't look like it's going to happen at No. 24 this trip. The only guy that would probably take them off a defensive tackle, tight end, or cornerback is Ohio State's A.J. Hawk and he'll be long gone. Right now, the boards of Kiper and Scouts Inc., both have Hawk ranked sixth and Scouts has mocked him to the Raiders at No. 6. **
SAFETIES (5):** Madieu Williams, Kevin Kaesviharn, Kim Herring, Herana-Daze Jones, Tony Bua.
All eyes are on this spot after their two starters, Williams at free and Herring at strong, combined to play only four games. Their secondary wilted against big plays in the last three games, making the position an offseason priority in both the draft and free agency.
Williams (shoulder) is said to be ready to go for the spring camps and he's their best defender when healthy. Herring, who turns 30 Opening Weekend, has missed two of the last three seasons with injury and his $1.2 million salary is vulnerable. They'd like to re-sign backup strong Anthony Mitchell but not backup strong Ifeanyi Ohalete.
Kaesviharn is extremely valuable as a backup that can play every spot in the secondary as well as a lead on special teams. The 205-pound Indiana Jones, pushing for a backup spot, had an impressive rookie season on the practice squad, where Bua brought some experience and his 220 pounds from the Dolphins in mid-season. **
POSSIBLE PICKS:** Don't look for a first-round pick here. More second round. Reflecting NFL consensus, Scouts Inc.'s only safety in its top 32 is Michael Huff of Texas. With Williams and Kaesviharn in toe and given how poor their tackling was in the back at the end of the season, conventional wisdom is the Bengals are going for the big hitter at strong.
Draft gurus like Jones wonder if the big bang trio of Georgia's Greg Blue, USC's Darnell Bing, and Ohio State's Donte Whitner make it to the Bengals at No. 55.
(Williams, by the way, went No. 56 in 2004.)
"Blue is a guy that just flat out blows you up. A tremendous tackler. He drills people," Jones says.
Picture the 6-1, 210-pound Blue's former Georgia teammate, Thurman, at strong safety. But that's just it. He's a middle backer playing safety who has had to work on his coverage skills. The 5-9, 200-pound Whitner is slighter, but can cover. So can South Carolina's Ko Simpson, but he's only a red-shirt sophomore and has slipped off Kiper's big board even though he still projects the Bengals to take him at No. 24.
Kiper rates the 220-pound Bing behind two other juniors, Abilene Christian's Danieal Manning and Purdue's Bernard Pollard.
The 6-2, 225-pound Pollard has the kind of size the Bengals like and 6-0, 195-pound Roman Harper of Alabama has the mentality against the run they like and they might be able to get either in the third round, as they could Florida State's Pat Watkins. Watkins is 6-4 and Jones says that may hurt him with scouts as they watch him get in and out of his rangy breaks.
There's a big question over Tennessee safety-cornerback Jason Allen as he comes back from hip surgery. **
CORNERBACKS (5):** Deltha O'Neal, Tory James, Keiwan Ratliff, Greg Brooks, Patrick Body.
Madieu Williams is their best nickel cornerback, but the Bengals would like to re-sign incumbent nickel corner Rashad Bauman. What they would really like is for Ratliff to return to his rookie form of 2004. The Bengals admit that the need to switch Ratliff back and forth to safety and corner last year because of injuries at safety didn't help his development.
O'Neal went to the Pro Bowl with a franchise-best 10 interceptions and although James turns 33 in May, he has the confidence of the coaching staff as another year as a starter. What has he meant to this team in his three years here? His next interception gives him 18 as a Bengal, passing Tommy Casanova into fifth place on the club's all-time list.
It's a do-or-die year for Brooks in his third season while the 6-2, 190-pound Body should get a nice, long look in preseason in his second year. He has the size and speed they covet there, plus he's a converted college safety and maybe down the road he can be a two-way guy like Williams and Kaesviharn.
POSSIBLE PICKS: One of these days, the Bengals are going to take a cornerback in the first round and play him there. It hasn't happened yet, but the odds are with them now. If they don't want to reach for a tight end or a defensive tackle at No. 24, the way to go is probably at cornerback. Given James' age and the fact he's going into the last year of his deal, plus Ratliff's inability to prove to them yet he can be an every-down corner, it would make sense.
As always at this time of year, there are a raft of corners hovering between late first round and early second round. Two top 15 guys who should be long gone are Virginia Tech's Jimmy Williams and Clemson's Tye Hill.
Are people like Penn State's Alan Zemaitis, Ohio State junior Ashton Youboty, Florida junior Dee Webb , and Miami of Florida's Kelly Jennings first-round material?
That's why the combine is two months before the draft. What the Bengals definitely know is they want size. They only want to see 6-foot corners (or close to it), and Zemaitis (6-1) and Youboty (6-1) qualify. Scouts Inc. puts Youboty No. 24 on its big board of 32 as its third and last corner.
The Bengals had a shot at getting a big Ohio State corner at No. 24 and then No. 26 in 2004, but they eschewed Chris Gamble in favor of Michigan running back Chris Perry.
"This guy might be a little more physical than Gamble," Jones says. "He's not quite as good as Gamble in coverage. Remember, Gamble played wide receiver, too, but I think they're pretty similar guys. . . You have to look at a guy like Zemaitis. He plays the run real well, and he comes out of a program that produces polished secondary players."
Kiper actually rates Youboty ahead of Hill on his big board (No. 21 and No. 22, respectively), but his list also runs out after them and Jimmy Williams.