INDIANAPOLIS - As he has been known to do, Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer asked, "I've got a theory. You want to hear it?"
Since he was walking back Sunday from his first exposure to the defensive backs at the NFL scouting combine, Zimmer had all the time to expound on his desire to find a young cornerback he can turn into a cornerback/safety.
"Everybody in the NFL is looking for cover safeties," Zimmer said. "You're playing three and four receivers, and tight ends that can run. So what's wrong with playing three corners and a safety? We're not really a Cover 2 team, but a Cover 2 corner might fit for us as a free safety."
And that's the kind of guy that can be found later in the draft because defensive backs drop or rise in direct proportion to their ability to cover. With the Bengals needing so much on offense early in the draft, that's not a bad scenario for them.
So while the Bengals figure not to make a run at Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, a top 10 pick that may have to make that switch because of his speed, there could be guys like that starting in the fourth round.
Such as the University of Cincinnati's DeAngelo Smith, who played for the Bengals coaches last month in the Senior Bowl after helping the Bearcats to their first major bowl game in 10 presidents at the FedEx Orange Bowl.
Also in that mix is Troy's Sherrod Martin and New Mexico's Glover Quin. Utah's Sean Smith, who has been compared to Oakland's $15 million man in Nnamdi Asomugha, figures to be gone in the second round. But Zimmer is looking for more.
"Or don't even play him in nickel because he's already on the field. Who can be the free safety that has some coverage ability? Instead of saying, 'There are three free safeties that can cover in this whole draft,' let's find a corner that has enough size and intelligence to be the free safety. So now we've got 15 free safeties that can cover as opposed to three."
If there is anyone who knows if the 5-10, 194-pound DeAngelo Smith can do it, it's another former UC cornerback that played for Bengals secondary coach Kevin Coyle and assistant Louie Cioffi. Artrell Hawkins surfaced at the combine Sunday in a dual role as he looked to jump start an Internet sports talk show as well as check in on Smith.
Hawkins, a second-round pick 11 years ago, says he's more like a buddy to Smith but he has also been working him out the last couple of weeks and counseling him on technique.
"DeAngelo can definitely do that," Hawkins said of the dual role. "They say he's stiff. That's the criticism, but if you look at the tape he makes plays on the ball and he comes up and hits you. He's certainly not a big safety but he's big enough and his skill set is that he can cover receivers."
|Artrell Hawkins (Getty Images)|
"He's mature beyond his years," Hawkins said, citing Smith's relationship with his uncle, former NFL linebacker Pepper Johnson. "He understands the game."
Less than an hour after Zimmer outlined his agenda, the man that used Hawkins at both safety and corner later in his career, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, talked about the same thing as he delved into his look at the secondary.
"I think the safety position is becoming more and more of a corner position in the National Football League," Belichick said. "There were times when some of the safeties, particularly the strong safeties, fit more like linebackers than they did as defensive backs. I think that's changed gradually but ... your defensive backs either have to cover wide receivers or they have to cover tight ends that are very good in the passing game.
"I think the demands of that position have changed. I think that's changed the evaluation a little bit. I think some of those hybrid guys have played corner and safety, like Jenkins for example, is a guy that's played both. What his best fit is for a team, where he's most valuable, is certainly an interesting discussion for all teams."
Smith knows his fit is one size fits all on Draft Day.
"You get the total package," he said. "You get a returner, a corner, corner/safety, nickel back. I can do a lot of different things. You get a total package."
He says he played both man and zone at UC, but he still got thrown into the fire at the Senior Bowl when he played in the slot, which he hadn't done his last two years at UC.
"The way our defense played, we kind of played the slot because we played 'over' corner, so you had to play the slot at the same time," Smith said. "So I don't think it will be a big adjustment. You just have to get used to it."
Smith played safety a little more, but not much. He worked there during summer practice last year and played the first three games before he moved back to corner. In the Senior Bowl he gave up a long pass during a night he struggled. One scouting service said he was exposed in a game that proved he was a zone corner.
But Smith observed, "I don't think I struggled that much. I think I did pretty well. Just the deep ball, but hey, that happens to all corners."
Hawkins played in the Senior Bowl, too, (in fact his defensive coordinator was the Ravens defensive coordinator by the name of Marvin Lewis in the 1998 game) and he's got another view even though he hasn't seen the tape.
"I don't think that game is a good indicator where that player is or what he will become," Hawkins said. "You've got so many different variables. It's hard to adjust. Not only have you got a new coaching staff teaching you new techniques, but you've got new teammates. He was down about what happened in that game, but it hasn't disheartened him."
Smith has got some playmaking in him. He returned 23 punts this past season and averaged 9.5 yards and he returned two of his 12 UC interceptions for touchdowns after cashing seven of his 20 into scores while prepping in Columbus, Ohio.
"After you make the interception, your approach is, 'Get to the end zone.' I guess I got there pretty good," he said.
Hawkins predicts life will be even better if Smith can end up playing both.
"Life is very good," Hawkins said. "When you play corner, you can just play. When you play safety, you definitely understand what the other guys are doing, which makes you a better player."
Which is what Zimmer is trying to find.
"Make sense?" he asked.