Posted: 5:20 a.m.
Fast forward to the end of April and the top of the NFL Draft and the Bengals could be looking at a top five pick from a group that includes two left tackles, a wide receiver and, dare we say it, a Big Ten running back.
Mississippi senior Michael Oher and Alabama junior Andre Smith at tackle. Texas Tech redshirt sophomore Michael Crabtree at wide receiver. Ohio State junior Beanie Wells at running back. That's a leading scenario at the moment.
The Bengals can't discuss the juniors-to-be but the pundits can and none can declare until after the season. But the prediction is a flood of early outs in what draftnick Rob Rang says agents are telling clients is the last draft before a rookie wage scale. If the season ended today, the Bengals would have the second pick.
"Beanie Wells is a top five pick in my mind with his combination of power and speed," says Rang, senior analyst for NFLdraftscout.com. "There is a question of his durability, but unless they find something before the draft with his foot, I think he goes high."
Jerry Jones, the local draft guru who retired as a Cincinnati pharmacist and continues to publish the draft survey The Drugstore List as the baron of St. Simon Island, Ga., has seen two first-round Big Ten backs blown up by injury for the Bengals a decade apart in Ki-Jana Carter and Chris Perry. He admits the only thing that bothers him about Wells is "the durability factor." So with that bit of historical background, replace Wells on Jones' short list with a third left tackle in Virginia senior Eugene Monroe.
The last two tackles the Bengals picked in the top 10 (Willie Anderson and Levi Jones were both No. 10 in 1996 and 2002, respectively) worked out pretty well and Jerry Jones sees it as another fit. Get the running back and the receiver later.
"Tackle is the best value," he says. "These guys can come in and play right away."
Unfortunately for the Bengals, Rang says, there are no dominant defensive ends or defensive tackles looming in the top five. But fortunately for them, he says, a rather pedestrian group of senior skill players is going to be spiced by talented juniors at receiver and running back.
So that could conceivably push down to the top of the second round a guy like Michigan State running back Javon Ringer, a Dayton, Ohio native who is one of the top senior backs. At 5-9, 202 pounds, he doesn't have great size but he brings a lot of versatility.
"He's a very solid player," Rang says. "He does a lot of things well. He would be a guy like James Brooks, a guy that can catch it out of the backfield, but he's also a typical Big Ten guy in that he's good through the tackles."
Jones thinks the Bengals will also have to take a look at two inside backers even though those types don't usually go in the top five. But he says Ohio State's James Laurinaitis and USC's Rey Maualuga are good enough that they'll have to be considered.
As for the 6-3, 214-pound Crabtree, he looks to be the kind of big-play receiver that can go that high even though Jones says he's not a burner.
"It's a good question about his speed," Jones says. "He's more quick than fast. There is some concern that he's a little bit of a product of the scheme that they run down there at Tech."
Rang says he's convinced that Crabtree has special abilities at getting separation and that he'll be a big threat in the creases of NFL defenses.
"To me he's best fit for a West Coast scheme," Rang says. "If they're looking for a guy who's going to be more of a vertical threat, they'll have to wait for something a little later in the second or third rounds."
It keeps getting back to the tackles and Smith would have to intrigue them. Some have called him the most dominant tackle in college football since Orlando Pace a decade earlier at Ohio State. Like Willie Anderson, he's an Alabama native and he even wears No. 71.
Drafting a left tackle would also give the Bengals the ability to move Anthony Collins to right tackle and keep Andrew Whitworth at left guard, where they feel he's emerging as a Pro Bowl player.
But tackle won't be the only spot they seek on the line. It's the deepest crop of centers in years and Rang says a lot of teams are going to be looking to pick one off in the fourth round or so.
If Georgia quarterback Matt Stafford declares, Jones could see that helping the Bengals get a guy that fits them in the top five.
"Somebody is going to want to take a quarterback that high and he's the only guy in that spot," says Jones, no doubt thinking of the current leading Rookie of the Year candidates in Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan. "I don't know if there's another quarterback in the first round."