The Bengals signed one AFC North refugee in former Browns tight end Alex Smith on Tuesday, and Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison remains on their radar despite a USA Today report that characterized the negotiations as going badly.
Harrison agent Bill Parise wouldn't go that far Tuesday afternoon, but he did say there is work to be done before there is a deal.
"We wanted to have it done by now; we hope to get it done," Parise said.
Smith, who played the last three seasons in Cleveland, said he saw which way the wind was blowing in the division even before he heard the Bengals were interested.
"It's funny, because I was in Cleveland and I always pay attention to what's going on around the league, especially in the division," Smith said in a conference call Tuesday. "But even before I had a mention of Cincinnati being interested, I saw the direction and thought Cincinnati would be running away with it. I'm not just saying that, I really went through that thought process.
"Honestly, I had thought about that before even signing with Cincinnati. I thought the division was definitely leaning in Cincinnati's favor based on some of the roster moves that teams were doing. Cleveland is going through another transition with a new coach (and) just seeing the way players were exiting out of Pittsburgh and Baltimore, I thought the way Cincinnati was able to keep the nucleus … they already had a nice, young talented roster, so I think being able to build off of that, you've already seen success and I expect them to run away and be even better now. Especially with the shape of the rest of the division."
Like Harrison, Smith is a veteran that figures to supplement what the Bengals already have and be an upgrade over last year. Smith, who turns 31 next month, is targeted as a backup to Jermaine Gresham who can provide more muscle than second-year man Orson Charles in the blocking game.
The Bengals still like Charles's athleticism and hands, but some view Smith like a latter-day Tony Stewart from the previous decade when he teamed with Reggie Kelly to provide some pop at the point of attack. Throw in Smith's Stanford pedigree in the West Coast offense during college and four more years in the West Coast under the Gruden brothers in Tampa Bay, and the Bengals think he'll be able to contribute in all phases of the offense almost immediately and help them do more things from an X and O standpoint.
"Some people don't like to be called a jack of all trades, but to me that's a compliment," said tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes. "He can do a lot different things, not just limited to one or two things. The fact he's been in the offense and knows it, it helps because the tight end has to know a lot of things."
As Smith noted Tuesday, he's done a little bit of everything during his career. After the Buccaneers took him in the third round of the 2005 draft, he had 129 of his 160 career catches and 11 of his 12 touchdowns during his four seasons when Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was a Bucs assistant under brother Jon Gruden.
Then Smith's role changed when he played a year with the Eagles before arriving in Cleveland in 2010. Last year Pro Football Focus listed him as a fullback playing 280 snaps, 152 of them on run plays.
"I like to think I can do it all. Earlier in my career I think I was leaned on more in the passing game," Smith said. "I think later, based on personnel, I've been asked to do a little more blocking. Last year I was doing a lot of stuff out of the backfield. I just like to think I'm a jack of all trades, honestly, and not to limit myself to one thing."
He feels quite comfortable in the reunion with Jay Gruden. He called him "Jay," and then immediately corrected himself.
"I’ve known Jay—Coach Gruden—from the time I got into Tampa. He was always around and he ended up taking a couple of different roles with the team. There was a comfort level with coach Jon Gruden and coach Jay Gruden," Smith said. "The West Coast (offense) is something I’ve been familiar with my whole career. Coming out of college it’s been the same style and coming in and starting right away my rookie year, it’s something I’ve always had a comfort level with and felt comfortable running."
Smith looks to be in the mold of Kelly and Stewart, a guy at ease as a locker-room leader. Right away, he ticked off leadership as one of the elements he brings to the table.
"First and foremost I think it’s bringing that leadership role and whatever role is asked of me to do," Smith said. "I think we have a fairly young room in the tight end room and my experience and from the years I’ve played I can at least come in here and be a good leader and a good role model and show the guys the ropes. Whatever is asked of me to do, I’m comfortable doing, whether it be the blocking guy, whether it be a motion guy coming out of the backfield, anything. I just want to be a positive influence for the guys and hopefully I can contribute."
Smith hasn't met Gresham yet, but there has been another first impression on film and it is good.
"He’s a great talent. Very athletic, great size," Smith said. "I definitely think he has a whole lot more potential he could tap into. I think the sky’s the limit for him."
The Bengals would like to add another AFC North product in the high-profile Harrison, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year who helped fuel Pittsburgh's two Super Bowl runs. A salary cap casualty, Harrison, who turns 35 next month, is believed to be committed to exacting some revenge in the division.
Cincinnati likes the sound of that and a report of an imminent deal made the media rounds over the weekend. But then came the USA Today report Tuesday and now it's not so imminent.
But Parise indicated the two sides would like to get a deal. The Bengals seem like they want to, also.
Yet they're also balancing paying a 35-year-old SAM backer in a 4-3 defense where three defensive linemen who accounted for 27 of their 51 sacks last year (Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap) are heading into contract years. Harrison would clearly rush more than last year's SAM backer, but Manny Lawson only played about a third of the snaps.
With the Bengals sliding $10 million into next year's salary cap for the impending extensions of wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton, the Bengals figure to have about $8-9 million to spend on right tackle Andre Smith as well as the Atkins et al extensions, and Harrison.