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Early take


Andre Smith

INDIANAPOLIS — Gil Brandt, the conscience of the NFL Draft at 79 years young, picked up a pen here Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine and sketched out some basics of the first round he learned as the architect of America's Team back in the day of the Dallas Cowboys.

"You can get running backs down the road. You can get wide receivers down the line. You can get safeties down the road, but not like you used to," Brandt said.

So here are the Bengals at No. 21 needing a starting safety and complementary running back with 11.5-sacker Michael Johnson and right tackle Andre Smith unsigned two weeks before free agency opens, and Brandt offered another truism.

"It's easier to replace a right tackle than it is a pass rusher," he said, which gives some credence to the speculation that the Bengals could make Johnson their franchise free agent if there is no long-term deal.

The Bengals don't want to replace either. If the buzz around the club is accurate, they'll try to sign both Johnson and Smith to long-term deals before free agency opens March 12 and stick with second-year wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones instead of drafting one early. A report that surfaced Thursday saying the Bengals won't try to re-sign middle linebacker Rey Maualuga was characterized as inaccurate by a source with knowledge of the situation. The indication is that the Bengals are prepared to move Vontaze Burfict to the middle, but they could be open to Maualuga playing SAM, where he played his first two seasons with the Bengals, and are still engaged with him.

It is rather convenient that this is a draft rich in right tackles and 4-3 ends right about where the Bengals are picking and that they have two second-round picks, fertile ground this year, it is said, for safeties and running backs.

"It's a first round that is heavy on the offensive line and there are some guys if they fit probably can be pretty good rush guys," former NFL general manager Bill Polian said as he prowled his old stomping grounds at Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday as a media analyst. "But then it's the old compared to what?

"Talking about what's available now at 18 or 21 is a fool's errand. You don't know what the evaluations are. You don't know what the medicals are. You haven't finished all the work that needs to be done on the players. No one has a board now with players locked in."

And when it comes to the Bengals, Brandt's law of pass rushers and right tackles may also be in flux. There could be more 4-3 defensive ends that fit the Bengals at No. 21 than right tackles, considering the Bengals have a history of selecting massive as well as athletic human beings on that side of the line.

A lot depends, of course, on what happens in free agency. Re-signing Johnson and/or Smith to long-term deals could potentially wipe out that position in the first round, but the Bengals have not been averse to stacking, particularly on the offensive line. (Note the long-term extension of left tackle Levi Jones three months after selecting Andrew Whitworth in the second round in 2006.)

A lot also depends on how the Bengals view late first round and early second round offensive linemen like Syracuse's Justin Pugh and Tennessee's Dallas Thomas.

The Bengals like their right tackles like Smith, which is why they want to keep him. Huge. Powerful. A run puncher. So meet Smith's University of Alabama descendant D.J. Fluker, the Crimson Tide's national champion right tackle whose combine got off on the right foot Thursday when he weighed in at 339 pounds, 16 pounds fewer than last month's Senior Bowl weigh-in.

Brandt gives Fluker high marks for his power and his ability to "dominate defenders." Word is Fluker is not very swift of foot and won't be able to play on the left side, which is why he won't be among the left tackles that go long before the Bengals pick in the first: Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel, Central Michigan's Eric Fisher and Oklahoma's Lane Johnson.

But Fluker is the textbook right tackle and the kind of guy that offensive line coach Paul Alexander and head coach Marvin Lewis tend to draft: Big, strong and productive at a major college. Fluker has four years in under an NFL coach in Alabama's Nick Saban and could have played another, but he and Pugh became the first players in Senior Bowl history to be granted an invite despite playing only three seasons.

Pugh is an interesting guy, but he's not Cincinnati's kind of right tackle. In fact, after his Senior Bowl there are those that don't think he's anyone's right tackle but that he's a guard and a guy that could play all five spots pretty well. Alexander, as well as any other NFL line coach, is wary of short arms and Pugh's curse is his measure only 31 and a half inches.

But, like Fluker, he got some good news at Thursday's weigh-in. His arms measured half an inch longer in the month following the Senior Bowl.

"It might mean some money," he agreed with a laugh at Thursday's news conference. "I played three seasons of good football not knowing I had short arms. I think I can play tackle and all the teams have told me I can play tackle until I prove I can't."

The 6-5 Pugh also found out he gained seven pounds from Mobile, making him 308 pounds. That should help, too. He said the Bengals were getting ready to talk to him Wednesday night, but in the chaos of the meeting room at the downtown train station they didn't make connections.

"I've done everything but snap," said Pugh, who also thinks he can play all five spots. "With my football IQ, I think I'll be OK with the (center's) calls."

Like seemingly every position in this draft, right tackles can be had in the second and third rounds. But can the Bengals take one if they seek safeties, SAM backers and running backs?

A few tough, big maulers to keep in mind are Oregon's Kyle Long and Colorado's David Bakhtiari. And then as the draft weaves toward the third and fourth rounds, here's Wisconsin left tackle Ricky Wagner, a 6-6, 310-grinder in the mold of Bengals right guard Kevin Zeitler, his former college teammate.

"He texted me before the combine, before the Senior Bowl," Wagner said Thursday. "He just told me to be myself."

The pros must think Wagner is an NFL right tackle because the coaching staff switched him there at the Senior Bowl, where he struggled some.

"I haven't played it in two years. It would take a little bit of a transition if I end up playing there for a month or two," Wagner said. "I can play both. The footwork is the same. I just have to get the feel back and get comfortable."

Wagner says he took notes playing with Zeitler.

"He's one of the most physical offensive linemen I've ever seen," Wagner said. "I'm the same mind as him. His work ethic is unlike anybody else's."

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