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Final countdown

Robert Geathers

With 13 days to go until the Bengals are on the clock with the 17th pick, the next big date on the calendar is Tuesday's local day for college prospects at Paul Brown Stadium.

Each NFL team is allowed to host players who either went to college or high school in their city's metropolitan area as defined by the 2012 Rand McNally road atlas and for the Bengals that means they'll be working out about 25 players with the bulk of them from the University of Cincinnati.

The Bearcats' biggest prize, running back Isaiah Pead, won't be among them. As a player projected to go as high as the second round and no lower than the third, Pead has a heavy travel schedule when it comes to his pre-draft visits. But word is the Bengals are going to work him out Friday at PBS before he gets back on the road next week.

The highest drafted player to show up Tuesday figures to be Boston College's Luke Kuechly out of Cincinnati's St. Xavier High School, far and away this draft's top-rated inside linebacker. No mock in the universe has the 6-2, 235-pound Kuechly getting to the Bengals, but it is called due diligence and a nice chance to visit.

With WILL outside linebacker Keith Rivers now with the Giants (joining quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Jack Thompson, and linebackers Joe Kelly and Ricky Hunley as traded first-round picks), the Bengals figure to draft one and maybe two linebackers of the outside variety. The only way they would take one early is if one of the top prospects fell in the first round, but in all probability the Bengals will use their late-round picks on an outside backer and maybe the one the Giants gave them in the fifth at No. 167.

As well as they've done picking off defensive lineman late lately (Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, Robert Geathers, Jon Fanene), the Bengals weren't able to get a late backer to stick until fourth-rounder Roddrick Muckelroy had a good rookie year in 2010. Muckelroy, who backs up the middle and can play some WILL, missed all of his second season with a torn Achilles and it's hoped he'll get on the field in May.

It's not supposed to be a deep draft for backers, the draftnicks say, but they think teams can get a pretty good defensive lineman at any point. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis thinks the D-line field is always plentiful just from the nature of the young players working at the position.

"There's the guy that looks like Tarzan and doesn't quite play like Tarzan and there's a guy that doesn't quite have Tarzan's traits but plays like Tarzan; there's a lot of that at that position," Lewis said. "There are overachievers and there are underachievers. There are guys that haven't grown into their body in their physical development and there are guys that have, but their feet are slow. So they don't make it. He looks (good), but his feet are slow and he can't make it at this level."

And yet the Bengals have done well projecting a tough position to project. In the fourth round they've nabbed a Pro Bowl tackle (Atkins), a nine-year end (Geathers) and a top-tier tackle (Peko). And right end Michael Johnson is a third-round pick that played more snaps (nearly 70 percent) than anyone on the defensive line.

"You have to take the guy with the motor," Lewis said. "If you take the underachiever in the third or fourth, you're going to be stuck with the underachiever in the third or fourth round. The couple of guys we've taken have had the real motor. They may not have had the big physical traits. Peko was a little unheard of. Geno was a little undersized, people felt, but had certain things. Robert had an incredible motor."

And the same has to be said for Johnson, a guy the Bengals are trying to get to ease up on the motor. They want to cut back his snaps after a season he played well early (ask Browns Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas) and then seemed to wear down late in the year with nagging ailments.

Lewis wants to get more plays this year out of the backup right end than he did last year with the departed Fanene and Frostee Rucker. The Bengals are hoping that will be a combination of free agents Derrick Harvey and Jamaal Anderson, but the draft is looming.  

"He plays so hard. He played more snaps than anyone on our defensive front," Lewis said of Johnson. "We have to continue take some snaps off his plate so we can get that high level all the time. (Fanene and Rucker) took some (snaps), but not as many as we thought at the end of the day. Michael played through injury, he just kept playing, which showed how tough he was."

Everyone but Lewis is saying the Bengals draft board is as wide open as it has ever been under Lewis. He agrees they don't have a glaring need that has to be met right away.

"I thought the board was wide open in 2005 when we drafted David Pollack," Lewis said of the Georgia end the Bengals converted to SAM backer. "We never thought David would get to us. I think you try every year to go into the draft not locked into any position."

And if he had his druthers, Lewis would like to do what the Bengals had to do last year because of the lockout and have the draft before free agency.

"As a coach you prefer to draft a young player rather than signing a player from somewhere else," Lewis said of being able to teach habits. "Unless you sign a guy you know inside and out."

The Bengals are apparently close to re-signing one of those guys in backup tight end Donald Lee. Lee came over from the Packers early last season and gave leadership to a young position as well as blocking skills and some clutch catches when Pro Bowler Jermaine Gresham was sidelined. Against Tennessee in the win that ultimately got the Bengals into the playoffs he caught balls of 22 and 25 yards on a scoring drive in the second quarter that got them back into the game.

A deal with Lee would give the Bengals 14 signings since free agency opened a month ago back on April 13 with contracts counting up to nearly $30 million against the 2012 salary cap.

The Bengals are also looking at counting about $13.5 million against this year's cap for the following items: Nine draft picks at about $7 million. About $1.5 million for practice squad, college free agents, and daily offseason payments beyond workout bonuses. About $5 million for injured players and incentives that are projected to trigger through the season.

It's also believed during the summer the Bengals will try to extend some of their current players nearing the end of their rookie deals.

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