Virginia safety Chris Cook battles UC's Mardy Gilyard at Senior Bowl practice. (AP photo)
Posted: 7:40 a.m.
MOBILE, Ala. - It is so early in the draft process that even a Rhodes scholar like Florida State safety Myron Rolle and the five-year-old kids and their grandmothers with Tim Tebow jerseys ringing the field this week in Ladd-Peebles Stadium know they are miles away from the NFL. Not to mention a month from the NFL scouting combine and three months away from the actual draft.
But some things became a bit clearer this week: This might not be a starry, starry draft brimming with a marquee quarterback or wide receiver and the Bengals' 21st pick probably won't be playing Saturday in the 4 p.m. Senior Bowl that is televised on the NFL Network. Yet enough talent showed up this week that NFL scouts think the Bengals can satisfy their needs for a wide receiver, tight end, safety and defensive ends with four picks in the first three rounds.
Some players to watch for the Bengals, who again figure to get an extra third-round pick from the loss of wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh:
When it comes to wide receivers, the Bengals lately have been looking at their most productive receivers of the past 20 years, as well as NFL leaders over the past few years. None of them came out of the first round. Most came in the second. The Colts are riding the play of a fourth-round rookie, Austin Collie, and a small-school sixth-rounder from '08 in Pierre Garcon. The most prolific pass-catcher over the past two seasons is college free-agent Wes Welker.
There doesn't look to be a first-round receiver here this week, although there are those that believe Florida's Riley Cooper could be by April. At 6-3, 210 pounds, Cooper has caught enough balls down here to become intriguing.
"They're saying he's going to run 4.4," said a scout of Cooper's looming 40-yard dash this spring. "If he does that with the way he's played here, he'll go in the first round. He'll be this year's Jordy Nelson and just keep going up the board."
The North has two receivers that people don't think are going to get out of the second round in Cincinnati's Mardy Gilyard and Clemson's Jacoby Ford. Even though Gilyard has struggled catching the ball this week, he's got a lot of good game tape and his kick-return abilities are going to sell somebody. The 5-8, 182-pound Ford doesn't fit the Bengals' lust for big receivers, but he's a real blazer and showed enough toughness and hands this week to help somebody soon in the slot.
The 5-11 Gilyard doesn't exactly fit the big receiver Bengals tag either at 185 pounds, but after that '08 draft they passed on guys like DeSean Jackson and Eddie Royal and drafted Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell, it looks to be time to revisit that philosophy.
And the Bengals will have their chances to revisit it. With Simpson and Caldwell not giving them near the production that is warranted by their second- and third-round selections, they are seriously discussing taking two receivers in this draft.
Their tight end situation is so uncertain with the injuries to Reggie Kelly (Achilles) and Chase Coffman (foot) they almost have to go after another one early after using the third-round compensatory pick on Coffman last year.
They're at the point if the best tight end is available in the first round, say Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham even if he's coming off an ACL injury, they could take him. But there will be some others playing Saturday that might be able to help the Bengals in the second, third and fourth rounds.
For the South, USC's Anthony McCoy and Miami's Jimmy Graham (6-7, 260 pounds) have showed good size and hands. For the North, Mike Hoomanawanui of Illinois has impressed with his ability to block and while Oregon's Ed Dickson is a smallish 6-3, 245 pounds, he showed he's willing to throw his body around.
The Bengals have to be in the market for a safety fairly high in the draft for a variety of reasons, chief among them depth. Roy Williams has played seven games in the last two years and is unsigned, and foes took advantage of the injuries in the last month to run the ball. Plus, the Jets got a huge playoff game out of Dustin Keller, a tight end the Bengals didn't draft because of suspect blocking but had trouble covering with starter Chris Crocker hobbled by an ankle injury.
You wouldn't look for the Bengals to take a safety at No. 21, but there are enough here in the Senior Bowl to make one think they'll be able to get a good one with one of those four picks in the first three rounds. There is a trio for the North that is quite interesting because there are those that believe that cornerbacks Chris Cook of Virginia, Brandon Ghee of Wake Forest and Devin McCourty of Rutgers can also play safety.
The 5-10, 190-pound McCourty may look a bit familiar to Bengals fans. One scout says "He's got a bit of Leon Hall in him" when it comes to being physical.
Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer watched Cook for about five minutes the other day and wondered if the 6-2, 203-pounder could be a candidate to play all five spots: Both safeties, both corners, and slot corner. Some people say he is and is a top 30-40 guy and long gone before the Bengals pick in the second round.
"I've never played safety a day in my life," Cook said after he picked off Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike in the Wednesday morning practice. "It's not a big problem for me. If (teams) move me to safety, I'm not complaining, as long as I make it."
But he's trying to show them he's a natural corner.
"I'm just trying to show everybody I can run. They might not think I'm as fast as some of the small corners," Cook said. "So I'm trying to turn my hips like the smaller guys. People don't think I can be as fluid as a smaller guy."
He looked pretty fluid (and instinctive) on the pick of Pike. "It was a tight split. I knew he was either going across the field or crack(back), so I was anticipating the route," Cook said. "He tried to lean into me a little bit, and the ball came out and I undercut it."
Meanwhile, the South has one very good pure safety, USC's Taylor Mays, and he doesn't figure to be around when the Bengals pick in the second round. But one of the North's pure safeties, Larry Asante of Nebraska, could be available somewhere between the second and fourth. The 5-11, 210-pound Asante is used to being a leader in the secondary and getting calls in. Some scouts call him "fiery."
"As far as the back end, we had young linebackers and I was echoing calls into them and I was in charge of getting the cornerbacks aligned," he said. "I played both the deep ball and run support."
But, like everybody else on Saturday, he wants to get his hands on the ball.
"When I get a chance to get the turnover, I want to be able to capitalize," Asante said. "I don't just want to knock the ball down. I want to catch it and cause turnovers."
No one seems to know if the 6-1, 223-pound Rolle is going to get drafted, but he's got the best story in the draft. He missed last season because he was studying at England's Oxford University and doing things like debating illness narratives with his classmates. He wants to be a medical anthropologist, but first he wants to play in the NFL for a decade.
"Oxford is a unique place. You have people come from all over the world that are bright, compelled, ambitious who want to fight the world's fight," said Rolle to a media contingent that came from all over the NFL to talk to him after a practice last week. "They all come into this one environment that is very academic, very traditional, and they offer part of their ideology, part of their opinions. You challenge them, or rebut them, or agree with them, and you develop your own beliefs system."
Rolle has become close friends with another athletic Rhodes scholar in former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, from Rolle's home state of New Jersey, but he has to sell the scouts the year off hasn't hurt him. He looked pretty good for a guy that hadn't played since ... when?
"I haven't had a helmet on since Dec. 28 (2008) in the bowl game against the University of Wisconsin," said Rolle, who got as close to football only when he practiced with the Oxford rugby team.
He said the most rust has come from "just seeing the sets and the personnel groupings. That's hard to come into in a day, but I got a lot better at it and I had more command of it (later in the week)."
But he's obviously ready for whatever obstacles the NFL presents. He admitted his classmates wondered why he was famous once they saw the BBC cameras follow him a few times.
"They thought I was rich or a rapper," he said. "I told them I played American football and that took five minutes to explain the rules."
He can only hope NFL teams will have a better idea who he is. Zimmer has heard about him.
"He's too smart for me," Zimmer joked.
Probably not. But the Bengals have three more months to figure it all out.