MOBILE, Ala. — As he watched the North's big men work here Wednesday during the last full-scale practices of Senior Bowl week, Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander recalled one of his peers making a request during a campus visit before the last draft.
"Hey, leave some tackles for the rest of us," the coach said. "You always have all the tackles."
Alexander, heading into his 19th season coaching the Bengals line, had a ready answer.
"I'll always have tackles," he told the coach.
Translation: If you don't have both starting and backup tackles, it's a long day at the office.
It's a worthy topic with the Bengals picking at No. 21. Of course, any topic is worthy with that pick because the Bengals are so wide open at that point and it's clear sailing to get their most immediate needs (running back, SAM and WILL linebackers, safety) starting in the second round.
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock calls it "a wild card" for the Bengals. Rob Rang, the CBSSports.com draft expert, says he would not be surprised if the Bengals picked a tackle even if they re-sign Andre Smith.
Sitting behind Smith at right tackle is Anthony Collins, a fourth-round pick from 2008 who simply plays well whether he fills in on the right or left side and has a career 18 starts. On the left side Andrew Whitworth is attending his first Pro Bowl of his seven seasons. But they're the only two tackles under contract with tackle-eligible big man Dennis Roland also unsigned.
Alexander isn't going to show his cards, but Rang says he could see the Bengals swooping in for a tackle or a defensive end at No. 21 in a draft rich with both. But to show how the Bengals have people a bit off balance at this spot, Rang and Todd McShay of ESPN mock the Bengals for Georgia inside linebacker Alec Ogletree.
McShay says he does it because there is no one worthy of the pick for Cincinnati's most pressing needs of running back, safety, wide receiver and right tackle. Rang has his fourth and last tackle of the first round, Alabama's D.J. Fluker, going 26th.
"If they go for a defensive end or a tackle, they're going to get a good player," Rang said.
The Bengals clearly want to sign their two top free agents, Smith and right end Michael Johnson. They feel like both players—who both turn 26 in the next two weeks—are on the verge of big things. The way head coach Marvin Lewis on Wednesday handled Smith's arrest last week for trying to board a plane with a loaded .38 indicates the club's plans haven't changed.
"He's a smart guy that got involved in a dumb situation; an oxymoron," Lewis said. "He's a smart guy that got involved in a dumb situation that caused him an embarrassment for a moment."
But even if the Bengals re-sign Smith, there is the first-round mantra that it should be for a first-round graded player at a premium position. There is also a school of thought that urges every draft should not end before teams take an offensive lineman, a defensive lineman and a linebacker. Linemen form the guts of the team and linebackers are usually the biggest special teams contributors.
"One thing that is true is injury is promised," Alexander said. "You're going to get people hurt. You need capable people to step in and do a good job. You need depth on the offensive line, where it's a high injury-rate position."
Alexander only has to go back to the third snap of the last preseason, when new left guard Travelle Wharton, a free agent, suffered a season-ending ACL injury. The Bengals figured second-year guard Clint Boling, a fourth-rounder in 2011, would be ready at some point last season and he ended up showing promise under fire.
Now the backup guard for both spots is the 31-year-old Wharton, a guy that has also played a couple of seasons at left tackle, and that has Alexander concerned because he's coming off a major injury. Right guard Otis Hudson, who hasn't played in a game since being drafted in the fifth round in 2010, has yet to be in the team's plans.
But Alexander says the emergence of rookie center Trevor Robinson has given the Bengals flexibility at backup guard since veteran center Kyle Cook played guard at Michigan State. Alexander says he has yet to make up his mind when asked if the center job is Cook's or if there is an open competition. Cook played the last three games after he came off injured reserve-recall with an ankle problem that wiped out his season until December.
"I'm not ready to answer that until I go through and look at all the cutups," Alexander said. "When they were playing together, they were grading out almost identical. Maybe one game a little better than the other. And Cook was only playing at 85 percent. I like Cook, I like Robinson. They're legitimate starting centers. Robinson played guard in college (Notre Dame), but his frame is more suited for center."'
The last time the Bengals were accused of stacking at tackle it came out pretty well when they picked Whitworth in the 2006 second round even though 27-year-old Levi Jones was coming off a Pro Bowl alternate season. When Jones began his physical struggles early in Whitworth's rookie season, no one was talking about stacking.
"Tackles are a commodity," Alexander said, and they bandied their wares Wednesday with Central Michgan's Eric Fisher showing everybody why he's a top 10 pick while toying with the North defensive ends.
People down here are saying he's the best player in the Senior Bowl and NFL.com's Pat Kirwan compares him to Cleveland perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas. Alexander won't say much, except he swears he saw Fisher do something he had never seen anybody do during pass-rush drills.
"He ran that guy all the way around. I mean, all the way around. All the way around the right tackle," Alexander said with a shake of his head.
OK, so Fisher won't be there. What about the 6-6, 355-pound Fluker? He's not practicing this week because of calf and groin injuries, but he did have an impressive weigh-in.
"He's a lot like Andre Smith," Rang said. "He's incredibly physical. Big, strong, nasty guy. He fits what they usually like … he killed them in the weigh-in at 355, 360. … It was (evenly) distributed."
Fluker is a nice story. Along with Syracuse tackle Justin Pugh, he became the first four-year graduate junior to be invited to the Senior Bowl.
Fluker is not only the first in his family to graduate, but he overcame his family's displacement by Hurricane Katrina when they were forced to move to Mobile from New Orleans when he was 13. Phil Savage, a Mobile native and the game's executive director, figured Fluker couldn't play but it was a classy move to invite him back to his adopted town for a news conference and weigh-in.
Another guy the mock drafts have going in the first round is Oklahoma's Lane Johnson, a 6-6, 303- pounder that plays the right side, but seems more comfortable on the left. At least that's what Rang thought when Johnson moved around this week, "but he needs to just get bigger."
Savage, on SeniorBowl.com, seemed to disagree.
"He has shown the length and ability to play both LT and RT," he wrote of Johnson. "He has been very secure in his lateral movements and has shown the knee bend to hold his ground when being bull-rushed. He is a certain second-round pick and may be emerging as a first-round possibility."
The North tackles, primarily Fisher, Wisconsin's Ricky Wagner, and San Jose State's David Quessenberry, have held up pretty well against ends that figure to go in the first round, such as UCLA's Datone Jones and Texas' Alex Okafor.
The 6-5, 301-pound Pugh has also picked up some second-round interest, but not as a tackle. After questioning his frame, there is now some belief he'd be a pretty good guard-center, but the Bengals don't look to be in that market.
Not with the rest of the league wondering where the Bengals put all the tackles.