The Bengals want Darqueze Dennard to spread his wings in 2015.
In the wake of Monday's close of the NFL scouting combine, here are some takeaways:
The Bengals have a chance to knock off a big portion of their off-season needs in the first three rounds, when they should get four picks.
(They'll find out next month how their free-agent compensatory draft picks line up, but they're for sure looking at a third-round selection for the loss of defensive end Michael Johnson. They could get a fourth if the Anthony Collins-Marshall Newhouse swap works in their favor in the byzantine free-agent formula.)
When everyone got sent home from Indy Monday, their needs appeared to line up with what is available. It's a good draft for tackles, edge rushers, and wide receivers that can run. It's also not bad for linebackers, but that may take a more little time to figure out because of the hybrid question. But as long as you're not taking a projection in the first round, you're OK.
There doesn't appear to be a franchise left tackle in this crop, but there are plenty of versatile guys in the first two rounds or so.
So anything goes in the first two rounds and that even means wide receiver in the second round even though they already have three that are established in A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanu.
For one thing, Green and Jones are coming off foot injuries. For another, hopefully the Bengals learned from last year's loss of Andrew Hawkins. All this depth you have in February isn't always there in December because of injuries.
One former NFL exec stopping over in Indy said that the Bengals' roster is so good and deep that the most important pieces are now spots like Hawkins' No. 4 receiver spot because those guys end up playing in big games because of attrition.
And, it's a good year for receivers. If it is one thing the Bengals have done superbly in the last five or so drafts it has been their ability to let the draft come to them. They've let the best player fall to them instead of reaching for a need.
For instance, last year there were a pretty deep run of quarterbacks and they used a fifth-rounder on A.J. McCarron. This year, it's very thin, a lousy year to be looking for a starting QB or backup. Now it looks like they've been rewarded with the cycle coming back to both lines. The one downer is that it's not a good year for tight ends and with no one expecting Jermaine Gresham to re-sign, they'll be in the market.
Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has been seething since the Wild Card loss and he's not so much looking for new players but a more dug-in mindset. He liked how the unit responded to his call to be more physical and tougher in running the ball (they went from 18th to sixth in the NFL rushing rankings), but he's not happy with how the last two games unfolded.
"The injuries played a role for us in some key spots, but we're going to get some guys back. The main thing is find the best players we think fit out mentality and what we're trying to accomplish on offense," Jackson said last week during a break in the combine.
Jackson looks at the depth chart and doesn't see many holes. But he definitely wants more of an edge from his own players and the ones they'll draft.
"We're a pretty veteran team. Obviously we had some injuries that we've dealt with, so I think anyone we draft, it's going to be tough for them to crack the lineup even though that's what we're aiming to do," Jackson said. "You want to create competition at every spot you can. At the end of the day, the guys who we put on the team we obviously think can help us. But when you walk into it, is there a spot you think you have to have?"
Not only did the NFL not want media covering the combine back in the day, they discouraged it. A credential? Only team officials got credentials. Hell, you didn't want them to know you were a reporter because they made life miserable for you and they gradually closed off the players.
In 1991, when there were about 10 reporters huddled in the lobby of the players' hotel, you could call their rooms, which is how I got future Bengals No. 1 pick Alfred Williams on the horn.
That got cut off and by 1993 a growing pool of reporters needed help from other prospects, like Jerome Bettis, to grab guys for a quick word in the lounge. With no media room, you could always write your story leaning on a potted plant while you waited for the next prospect or coach or scout to happen by.
But by 1997, the league jacked up the security in the hotel and the press had nowhere to go. By 1998, they did offer the media a small conference room on top of the Omni Hotel a couple of blocks away, but they were basically telling you to take a hike.
Now, of course, the league televises the damn thing after years of locking it up and with more than 1,000 credentialed media, the press room looks like a Final Four. They wanted secrecy, but there is no money in secrecy and so there are no secrets.
As opposed to 1991, everyone has the same information and if that's a reason the Bengals have drafted better in the last five years or so, then so be it. But you still have to know how to use it. That's what it comes down to. How teams use that information, not what they can keep from each other.
OK, Duke wide receiver Jamison Crowder ran 4.56 seconds in the 40-yard dash a few days ago in Indy, not fast enough for a 5-8, 174-pounder, supposedly. But he's more quick than fast and has return abilities. Can you fit that into your offense and special teams and how? Kentucky's Bud Dupree is listed an outside linebacker and everyone has his tape. Can you use him to be an end in your 4-3? Not the Steelers or Browns or Ravens, but your defense and the guys that would be around him?
Now there are two reasons for the combine. TV ratings are joined with the physical. The physical is about 80 percent of the combine and every team views the medical reports differently.
The Bengals and a lot of other teams were scared stiff by the report on Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski's back. The Patriots were not.
The interviews are about 10 percent and the Bengals were apparently very impressed this year by the quality of kid in the room. Of the 60 prospects they interviewed in a 15-minute formal session, maybe only two or three were duds.
But Andre Smith turned off a lot of teams at his combine in 2009 when he left to prepare for the Alabama pro day, and yet the Bengals still took him with the sixth pick.
So, the needle barely moves at the combine. Teams don't rush back to their draft room and re-arrange their board because of the 40-yard dash. Now, if a guy does something extremely bad or good in the drills, they'll double back and look at it. So you can assume that after Connecticut corner Byron Jones shattered the broad jump mark by breaking 12 feet and TCU linebacker Paul Dawson ran a dreadful 40 bordering on five seconds, they'll take another look at them.
And the combine can break a tie when you're ranking the board and you've got guys with virtually the same grade.
HOLD YOUR BREATH
The rehabs of wide receiver Marvin Jones (ankle), tight end Tyler Eifert (forearm) and WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict are hanging over this club like a funnel cloud. Sure we've seen videos of Jones running on the beach and Eifert skating and we've heard Burfict's surgeon say that microfracture knee surgery isn't as bad as it once was.
But the fact is, we're not going to know for sure until they get back to Cincinnati and are either rehabbing or practicing. Jackson and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther indicated that over in Indy.
"The main thing is he has to follow the protocol. It's a different type of injury," Guenther said of Burfict. "It's not one of those injures you have the surgery and then rehab it. It's rest for a long period of time, staying on crutches, the whole thing. And there are going to be days you'll feel like 'I want to work,' and he can't.
"He has to follow the protocol. Everyone I've talked to about it, that's what they're saying about this type of surgery. From everything I've heard, his knee is in good shape when they opened him up and the surgery was a success and hopefully he'll be ready to go."
Hopefully being the operative word.
Jackson is kind of the same boat with Jones and Eifert.
"I've seen shots of Tyler, like you said, on ice. I've seen shots of Marvin on the beach working hard. I feel good about them both," Jackson said. "Me knowing both young men, I think they both want to be back out there. I think it's important to them. I think last year hurt them because they weren't a part of it. I think they like playing for our organization with their teammates and they want to be back out there playing, so they're working hard and we'll get more information about them as we go."
ASK AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE
The people who are waiting for two of the Bengals' last three No.1 picks to play, cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard, can stop waiting. Guenther made that abundantly clear last week when head coach Marvin Lewis indicated that cornerback Terence Newman wants to keep playing.
It just doesn't sound like that is going to happen in free agency. Guenther basically declared cornerback wide open last week.
"There's no hierarchy. In the past, there were some incumbent guys, guys were coming back. But this year, it's open season. Jobs are open," Guenther said. "But every position's like this. Safety, linebacker, corner, up front. Everything. But particularly at corner, what you ask is yeah, particularly those guys, there's some good corners there. And the best guys are going to play. Whoever can help us win. If it's 50 snaps, 60 snaps, 10 snaps, whatever it is. But Darqueze needs to play some."
Even though he played just 61 snaps last season, the Bengals are extremely high on Dennard, last year's No. 24 pick. The fact Guenther is talking about playing more man-to-man this year than last shows you he's going to be playing a lot more. Even without Newman it is going to be a scrum to see who starts.
"Everything we found out about the kid when he came to our place, everything was true. Darqueze, he just needs to play. He just needs to get in there and go," Guenther said. "We need to get him in there early in the preseason against the best players, the first-string guys. Put him out there."
And while there is grumbling among the populace about starting cornerback Leon Hall's $9.6 million salary cap hit this season if he's just going to play slot corner in the last year of his deal, let's give it some time. If he looks better in the spring (and he should a year and a half after Achilles' surgery), then they can think about extending him for a year to lower the number.
Dennard is the classic example of letting the draft come to you. There don't seem to be a lot of first-round corners around this year. Dennard's teammate in East Lansing, Trae Waynes, is the best and after that there may be just one more, Washington's Marcus Peters.
GUENTHER DOESN'T BLINK
Guenther learned hard in his first season of calling plays. He didn't have his best player (Burfict), his Pro Bowl tackle (Geno Atkins) never bounced back like they thought from his ACL, and they fell from No. 3 to No. 22 in the rankings.
But as he spoke last week in Indy, he was pretty open about what he learned. Just two of the things that will be different are that he plans to look at linebackers in the draft rather than develop them and that he'll mix in younger players earlier in the pre-season games. After last year's spate of injuries, Guenther had pre-season backers in an October game against Andrew Luck.
"That's one of the things that I always have to remind myself. When you get into the preseason," Guenther said. "it's about building chemistry as a defense, but you've got to find out if these two guys are kind of tight, can this guy do it? Put him out there and see if he can do it with good guys. Don't put him out there with guys that are going to get cut."
Guenther took heat for calling out Atkins last month, saying he needs to step up his play this year. Atkins shrugged it off with a "That's his opinion," at last month's Pro Bowl, but Guenther's not backing down. He said they've talked, things went well, and he's urging on all his top players.
"He was fine. Geno's going to play his (butt) off. I'm confident in that," Guenther said. "Last year coming in was his first year (after the injury) and it was something that he went through. He's going to get back to training hard. I said it about everybody. We've all got to play better. I've got to coach better, we've got to do things better. It's not just Geno.
"That being said, our best players have got to play the best all the time. They've got to practice hard to play the best. Every good team we've ever been on, the best player always practices the hardest and plays the best. Always. Look at any team. Look at New England and Tom Brady. Just all the way down the line."
That's when free agency starts and although the Bengals would like to re-sign some of their own (left guard Clint Boling, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, and kicker Mike Nugent) don't look for a deal before then. No one likes to bid against themselves, player or team. With Gresham rated as high as the fourth best tight end available, that doesn't look like a number that's going to fit.
If they can't sign Boling, the options probably start in the draft, where there are guys that can play both guard and tackle.