Andrew Whitworth (Bengals photo)

Posted: 6:50 p.m.

The night before NFL Christmas and all through Paul Brown Stadium not a trade was stirring, not even one for Chad Ochocinco.

If there is one, it didn't make enough noise to hit the rumor mill, which crackled like chestnuts roasting on an open fire Friday. The buzz centered on USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, but one (from Scout.com's Adam Caplan) had a source saying the Bills at No. 11 were exploring a deal to get above the Bengals at No. 6 to take Alabama left tackle Andre Smith.

Certainly on a day of speculation, Sanchez and fellow quarterback Mathew Stafford of Georgia held the key to some absolute truths. If they go in the top five, the Bengals are most likely staring at one of the two or three top players in the draft. Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry doesn't figure to get past at Seattle at No. 4, but Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree could very well be leering at the Bengals as the lone lockdown No. 1 receiver in this draft.

But that's about it for absolutes this year. Some of the Friday smack had the Patriots also trying to get into the top 10 to perhaps get Andre Smith themselves.

Tired of all the speculation, the mocks, the breathless reports outside empty stadiums?

Let's go back in time when at least we know what happened and maybe that yields a clue or two for Saturday's draft that gets underway at 4 p.m. Go back to the second round in 2006, when the Cowboys have just taken Notre Dame tight end Anthony Fasano at No. 53.

With the 55th pick, the Bengals aren't exactly stunned Fasano is gone. They half expected Cowboys coach Bill Parcells to draft a Charlie Weis pupil and so they are looking at the next name and he's got a comparable grade to Fasano in LSU left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

The discussion has already been ongoing for the last eight or so picks and the one name that is calling to every team like the siren against rocks is Miami's Devin Hester, a firecracker of a gamebreaker in the return game that doesn't have a true position.

With left tackle Levi Jones and right tackle Willie Anderson in the fold, Whitworth looks like an extraneous pick. Even with both their contracts up after 2006, either Jones or Anderson figures to get franchised. Certainly Whitworth wouldn't make an impact in '06.

That's the debate. Maybe Hester comes in and turn games around instantly. And, if not Hester, there is another tight end on the board in Western Michigan's Tony Scheffler, or a defensive end in Virginia Tech's Darryl Tapp.

But Whitworth has a lot going for him in this room.  The two primary qualities are the value of the position and a rock-solid four-year resume at a big-time school. He never missed a practice (including for his graduation) or a game and allowed just one sack in 52 starts, the second most in NCAA history.

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski will later recall that he offers during the debate that Whitworth had the most impressive scouting combine interview he had witnessed in 15 NFL seasons. He has the strong recommendation of the area scout (Bill Tobin) and the position coach (Paul Alexander). It may look like stacking now, but what if Anderson and/or Jones don't get re-signed?

And if you don't know what position Hester plays, you know Whitworth can play four. Both guards and tackles.

The pick is Whitworth and like right guard Bobbie Williams said this week, "I'm glad we've got him. He's a good guy, a leader-type and he can play both guard and tackle. Good pick."

Indeed, if there is some hand-wringing in the moments and days after the pick because Whitworth won't supply immediate impact, imagine Bengaldom without Whitworth heading into the '09 draft with Jones' status up in the air because of injury and Anderson in Baltimore.

"That was the right pick. It was then and is now," says a former NFL general manager. "You have to take into account the value of the position. Plus, the guy can play a couple of different spots. Look at Hester. He's struggling at doing both. Playing a position and returning."

Or, as one draftnick, Rob Rang, senior analyst for NFLScoutDraft.com, said Friday, "There were legit questions about those other guys and they've proven them wrong. Same with Whitworth. People said he was too stiff, but he can obviously play.

"It's testament to Cincinnati's scouting that they took him where they did. No question Hester is the most dynamic returner in the league, but he can't start at either corner or receiver. So the question is if that's worth the value of such a high pick."

Whitworth is the reason the Bengals don't have to absolutely start a rookie left tackle this year because he can and has made the move from left guard to tackle. And he's a reason there is some defined leadership emerging from the transition beyond the Jones-Anderson offensive line in the person of Whitworth and Williams.

It was Whitworth who gathered the offense around him after that winless walk through last year the day before the club broke the skein against the Jaguars and challenged his teammates not to take getting punched in the face in their own building.

"I don't mind being a leader; I see it as part of my responsibility," Whitworth said. "I'm accountable and I want to be accountable to my teammates."

Even head coach Marvin Lewis sneaks a look at the press room TV as he walked out of an interview following the Whitworth selection looking to see if Hester is gone.

Two picks later to the Bears.

But then, like now, he feels Whitworth was about as solid as you can go.

"No question," Lewis says. "You take the best player. He was the best player. That simple. I mean, you're getting a smart guy that can play more than one position and one of them is tackle."

Was it all there to see?

He had 52 games of film and an overwhelming 15-minute interview, plus a raft of testimonies.

Certainly, Tampa Bay thought he was worthy.

"They called me and said they were going to take me if I was there," said Whitworth of the 59th pick. "So we were sitting there thinking, 'Tampa.' I didn't think Cincinnati at all. I had a good meeting with them at the combine, but I really didn't think of them as being the team. Then Paul called and we were going to Cincinnati. That's how it goes on draft day. You wake up and no one knows where they're going."

At the league's rookie symposium a few months later, Whitworth found himself talking to Troy Vincent, the NFL Players Association president, and told him he had gone to a team where he just didn't see himself getting any playing time for a few years.

And this was before Jones and Anderson signed contract extensions in the coming weeks.

But Vincent told Whitworth that he was wrong, that this was the NFL, and that things happen.

"I bet you play a lot this year," Vincent told him and Whitworth ended up getting his first NFL start at left guard in the second game of his career.

Then, when Jones' knee balked, Whitworth started 10 straight games in the crucible of left tackle and faced such gents as Dwight Freeney, Terrell Suggs and Julius Peppers, and did more than live to tell about it. With a rookie left tackle playing the bulk of the games, the Bengals missed the playoffs by a game.

Sure, Hester's five return touchdowns his rookie year might have gotten the Bengals from 8-8 to 10-6 or 11-5. But without Whitworth, could they have gotten to 8-8?

It is the unanswerable, except that last year while Hester had no return touchdowns before missing the last six games with an ankle injury Whitworth played some big-time games at left guard against guys like Albert Haynesworth and Jason Tuck.

But it is that rookie season that makes Whitworth think he can play left tackle. Yes, he had his problems against Freeney and Denver's Elvis Dumervil, which elicited some outside concerns about working against speed rushers.

"I felt like I had one bad game and that was against Freeney and a lot of guys have one bad game against Freeney," he said. "Yeah, they were ahead, they were in the dome, and all that, but I should have played better. And I didn't think Dumervil beat me up. He did beat me on one play, and I made a bad play. It was a bad step.

"But I feel like I can compete against these guys. Guys like Jared Allen. I've played in (42) NFL games and given up eight, nine sacks. I gave up five my rookie year and I think a lot of left tackles would take that and I know I'll be better over there because of the experience."

Whitworth moved to tackle to cool off Allen in Kansas City and hold him sackless after Allen got 2.5 in the first 17 snaps in 2007. And he started at left tackle in the opener that year, a game the Bengals allowed just one sack in a win over the sack-happy Ravens.

"I'll play wherever they want me to play, but I'm confident I can do the job at left tackle if they need me," he said. "I'm older now and hopefully smarter."

Whether that is a road map for this weekend remains to be seen. But it's proven to be a journey the Bengals are glad they took.

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