Eyes on Bengals as they eye draft

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Four years before Jake Fisher in the second round, the Bengals drafted quarterback Andy Dalton for need.

BOCA RATON, Fla. - The star-studded 2011 draft is getting a lot of play at this owners' meeting since it is the five-year anniversary of a bumper crop of Pro Bowlers.

And the Bengals, the marquee team of that draft, would love to replicate the success of that powerful A.J. Green-Andy Dalton one-two punch in the first two rounds of a draft that has defined the Bengals' most successful decade.

But it's a bit ironic because with the Carson Palmer-Chad Johnson era suddenly defunct the Bengals drafted for need that year. And yet the key to their widely acclaimed drafts has been just the opposite. For the most part they take their highest graded player rather than "reaching," down their board to grab a lesser player to fill a need.

In fact, during Tuesday's AFC coaches media breakfast, no less than media pundit Peter King of Monday Morning Quarterback.com called the Bengals "the personification of the best available player," genre when he dropped by Lewis' table.

"Reaching for a player, in our opinion, doesn't work out very well," Lewis said. "You're still looking for that same player the next year because if you reach above where we have the guy graded, then you'll be disappointed in some ways and you passed on a better player at another position."

So when the Bengals get called at No. 24 in the draft next month, don't look for them to reach for what is their really only glaring need, a wide receiver. You only have to look back at the last draft. Even though they had two starting veteran tackles, they took Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher in the first two rounds, kids that had no shot of contributing in a major way in 2015. They were the anti-Green and Dalton.

Lewis said they had no problem squaring the bench with a high draft pick. Not after watching tape of Ogbuehi in offensive line coach Paul Alexander's office.

"We couldn't have imagined," said Lewis of the possibility of getting both tackles. "It was no different than A.J. and Andy back in 2011. Things worked out in our favor.

"I remember watching Ced early on and walking out of Paul's office before the combine and saying, 'Wow.' And then meeting him in Indy and later on when we brought him into Cincinnati (before the draft), that was the guy we wanted to bet on and the same thing with Jake. It was a good feeling. Particularly a good feeling when they arrived two days later together and saw each other in the locker room. 'Oh, you're here, too.'"

Here's more irony. The Bengals' re-fashioned draft room of the past few years, headed by director of player personnel Duke Tobin, still relies a good deal on the scouting of coaches in a philosophy espoused by Bengals founders Paul and Mike Brown from back in the day.

Lewis' background of scouting players under personnel man Tom Donahoe and head coach Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh and general manager Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore as a defensive coach appealed to him when he applied for the Bengals' head coaching job in 2003. And the mix of coaches and personnel has taken off, as Lewis detailed for the national media curious about the success.

"The good thing is when I came to Cincinnati; I came with the sense of how we did things in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. That fit well with Mike," Lewis said. "The fact that in Pittsburgh I went out and looked at linebackers. Not many. Five or six guys and that's what our coaches have done since I've been there. We try to get a group of guys we want to separate and we want the coaches to go spend some time with them. Get their hands on them. Get to know them off the field a little bit. Find out more about them. For a coach, that's what you want . . . We're going to spend 15, 16 hours a day with him. Let me find out as much about him as I can so I make sure I get the right guy.

"We have to always work together. If you and I disagree on whether this guy should be one or two, let's sit down and let's watch him together, let me express my thoughts and you'll express your thoughts but somebody eventually has got to make the decision and let's not let it be emotional," Lewis said. "And once we make that decision that's the Bengals decision and we've got to move forward with it."

The difference is the Bengals have stuck with the best-player-available.

"Duke has done a tremendous job of the organization all the way through it now," Lewis said. "Mike has empowered him to basically direct the draft and the whole personnel function. And he's done a great job with it without anyone knowing it until I give him accolades all the time."

The secret is out with six post-season berths in the past seven years. But this is how close the Bengals came to sticking with the best player in 2011. If Auburn quarterback Cam Newton had somehow slipped by the Panthers at 1 . . .

"He was such an impressive, in my mind, kid. We spent a lot of time with him. We had the fourth pick so had Carolina passed on him likely he would have been a Cincinnati Bengal if he got to us," Lewis said. "We had done a lot of work with him and on him and spent a lot of time with him and his family. I was at Auburn a couple times He was in Cincinnati. But, the physicality of his play and how he's gone about it, in my opinion, and the accuracy of how he threw the football, he was so impressive."

But the Bengals have done just fine with Dalton. So while Lewis says they like the looks of sophomore wide receiver James Wright coming back from micro fracture knee surgery and seventh-rounder Mario Alford coming off a rookie year he played just one game, the draft looms for a wide receiver.

"I think the young guys have good opportunity to do well," he said. "We feel really good about James Wright's future. Mario Alford has an opportunity to continue to ascend. Brandon Tate always seems to be part of our mix. We have the draft. We have good opportunity to continually re-tool there."

But not right away if he's not the best player on the board.

 

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