Where have all the safeties gone?
The Bengals could use one at some point when the April 28-30 NFL Draft slips into Saturday and the final four rounds, but head coach Marvin Lewis is having a hard time finding them when he watches college video.
"Guys are playing different spots," he said last week. "You've got more guys trying to play corner, they're becoming big receivers. You would think with all the spread offenses in college there would be more, but the last few years there have been less. We felt last year like there was a pretty good dropoff after a certain point."
With Chris Crocker turning 31 last month and the depth chart littered with free agents and injuries, the search is on for one if not two this offseason. The last one the Bengals drafted was Corey Lynch in the sixth round in 2008 and the pick before that was Chinedum Ndukwe, a 2007 seventh-rounder that ended up making 31 starts. Ndukwe also had a bad knee injury that ended his season. Before the lockout he had been looking for a May return, but there had been some unknown when he'll be ready whether the club signs him or not.
So the dragnet is out. But don't look for the Bengals to take one very high in the draft. The only safety to get drafted before the fourth round in the Lewis era is second-rounder Madieu Williams in 2004. And they may have to do some projections in this draft as they look to move a corner to safety.
The Bengals could do that at the top of the draft with LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, but they are against taking projections in the first round so they'd probably keep him at corner if they took him.
"You have to look at cornerbacks that don't belong at corner," Lewis said. "We have to make sure of that. There are some guys that project like that and you have to make sure these guys can come and be safeties. Can they tackle? Can they stand up to the physical part of the game and then the mental part?"
Last year's dropoff came not far after the Bengals were denied trading back up into the second round to get USC safety Taylor Mays. But all they really needed immediately was a fourth safety, so they moved on without one for the second straight year and shored up their depth by signing veteran Gibril Wilson about 10 days later.
The days of depth are no more. Starter Roy Williams and Ndukwe, the No. 3, are free agents. After Wilson suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third preseason game, the Bengals traded for former Jacksonville first round pick Reggie Nelson on Cutdown Day. Lewis calls Nelson "an upgrade," and he'll start next to Crocker.
"We have to feel good about that," Lewis said of Nelson. "We're pretty good with the starters."
Crocker had been cleared before the lockout as he comes off his own season-ending knee injury and Nelson is coming off a productive stint during which he filled in with two interceptions, two forced fumbles and seven passes defensed in six starts. But after that, Lewis admits, "We're thinner than we want."
The Bengals have two undrafted practice squad grads in veteran Rico Murray and rookie Jeromy Miles waiting in the wings. Also in the mix is another undrafted guy, Tom Nelson. While Murray can play both secondary spots, Lewis says he's been more productive as a corner. Miles, a 6-2, 215-pounder out of Massachusetts, came off the practice squad for the last six games and finished tied for seventh in special-teams tackles with five. He played gunner on the NFL's top punt cover team, but Lewis isn't exactly bowled over by that.
"Some (bad) punts that bounced and couldn't return," said Lewis, clearly looking for more from punter Kevin Huber.
When the Bengaks cut their top special teams player over the past two years before last season in safety Kyries Hebert, it was more about age and trying to find a younger guy that could also contribute from scrimmage. Miles could be that guy.
"He's a good young guy; he's had a year of apprenticeship," Lewis said. "He has the physical tools and speed to be an NFL safety. He's one of these young guys that just doesn't have the experience. He has everything else. He kind of came on and did what you're supposed to do at the end of the year on special teams. Our hope was he would upgrade us on (special) teams when we let Hebert go. That he would fill that slot."
MORE PROJECTIONS: Lewis says the collegiate passing game is not only cutting into the pool of NFL safeties, but also linebackers.
"They're being used as ends; they've got a lot of guys with 40 numbers playing end," Lewis said. "They never matriculate back behind the line of scrimmage. It hurts the number of linebackers that have come out over the last few years."
Lewis says it's not unusual to turn on the tape and see just one team in a conference line up in a conventional offensive formation.
"Everybody is one back. The quarterback is in the (shot)gun. We're reading the ends, we're reading the tackles," Lewis said. "As a defensive player there is more one-gap control. It proves the point of seeing how the guy converts as a pass rusher more often. But how does he stand in against the run? Does it change in a game where guys are out there as pass rushing ends at 245, 250 (pounds) as opposed to 280 to 290?"
With the resurgence of the 3-4 defense in the NFL, Lewis says there is more of a need for those versatile players that can both cover and rush. But the games are so different and the bodies are so different that the projections are extremely difficult to make. Lewis broke into the NFL 20 years ago with the Steelers 3-4 looking for those called "tweeners," but in a 4-3 the Bengals only have to worry about finding one defensive end that can drop and play linebacker instead of two. And the Bengals would already seem to have him in defensive end Michael Johnson.
But they are looking for a SAM backer.
D-LINE LOOK:Quarterback Cam Newton wasn't the only guy that impressed Lewis at last month's Auburn Pro Day. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley has been taking heat lately, sliding up and down the board after coming into the draft as the possible No. 1 pick. There have been rumblings about him taking off plays, but Lewis shook his head.
"A lot of these things come from people trying to drive their guy up a little better one way or the other," he said. "I think that's why teams don't really worry about what comes across from a … writer. Each team has to do their diligence on the guy and spend time with the player and see that way.
"You've got high school, junior college, you've got a lot of things to look at in Nick's case. He's got a very good personality in watching him interact with teammates at Auburn. I don't see some of the characteristics that some people are comparing him to. Exceptional quickness. That's one of his big assets."
This D-line class has been ballyhooed as one of the best ever and Lewis says it's deep but he doesn't see the big star: "There's the depth of ability. That's probably a better thing overall. There are some good hard-playing guys."
Lewis is clearly looking for foot speed or else the lineman "is going to get cut in two," he says. In fact, he says the D-line has to have the physical assets right away. The only thing teams can do in the NFL to make him better, he says, is to get him stronger.
REMEMBER WHEN:Lewis thinks "if anybody looks around the league I think they'd say we've drafted pretty well." His drafts have produced such players as Carson Palmer, Eric Steinbach, Johnathan Joseph, Andrew Whitworth, Domata Peko, Leon Hall, Rey Maualuga Jermaine Gresham, Carlos Dunlap and Jordan Shipley.
But he also wonders what would have been if David Pollack and Tab Perry had not suffered career-ending injuries in the second game of their second season and running backs Chris Perry and Kenny Irons hadn't suffered devastating injuries. Irons never took a snap. With No. 1 pick Andre Smith coming off his second straight offseason with foot surgery, Lewis hopes he's not in that category.
"It sets you back a little bit; then Andre," he said. "If you didn't have those five things or so happen, you'd really feel good about things."
O-LINE HELP: Much of the pre-draft talk has centered around getting help at guard with Bobbie Williams turning 34 and left guard Evan Mathis headed to free agency. But what about right tackle with Smith hurting and Dennis Roland struggling? Anthony Collins has played in games the Bengals have won and put up good numbers, but the coaches seem to be waiting for more.
"We didn't play well enough at the right tackle position; we'd like to get better," Lewis said. "We have to get better through what we're doing. We've got to get better through coaching. And we may get better through personnel. We have to see what happens."