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Good draft to stay true to board?


As the NFL Scouting Combine screeches to a sudden halt Tuesday when cornerbacks get made or broken in the 40-yard dash, what didn't we know?

Even before the multitudes settled on Indianapolis we already knew that:

Jadeveon Clowney could run and Michael Sam can't. Johnny Manziel comes off annoyingly brash and Mike Zimmer doesn't. Hue Jackson plans to run and the Cleveland Browns run from plans. Jim Harbaugh has an ego big enough to have an orbit and Sammy Watkins has enough talent to fly with A.J. Green and Julio Jones.

This we already know.

But if The Combine can't tell you who the Bengals are going to pick at No. 24, the hype can give you a pretty good read on the guys they won't get because they'll be gone. And, the more the merrier because their pick is turning into No. 18 or 19, where they can get a very solid player.

The more quarterbacks and wide receivers and offensive tackles that fly off the board before No. 24, the better shot they have of getting the best player possible for them.

Of course, who exactly is that? What this team truly needs is not a rookie, but for Andy Dalton to play better and Geno Atkins and Leon Hall to rehab quicker than the biggest loser.

In the old days when their draft board would be ignored at times for need, the Bengals would be sitting here thinking about reaching for a second-round cornerback or tackle. But prudent signings and even better drafting have narrowed the needs enough to live on taking the grade over the need, the key ingredient in their last five critically acclaimed drafts.

"Best Player," is how they got Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert last year at No. 21 instead of UCLA defensive end Datone Jones. It is how they got Rookie of the Year finalist Giovani Bernard last year at No. 35 instead of Florida State tackle Menelik Watson and why they drafted Cal wide receiver Marvin Jones in the fifth round in 2012 even though they had taken Rutgers wide receiver Mohamed Sanu two rounds before.

New defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, in his 10th season on staff, has seen the benefits of the "Best Player," mentality. So while it would be nice to get a cornerback because of Hall's injury and the aging process, it won't trump "Best Player." If they lose Anthony Collins, a left tackle would be nice but not critical with Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth in the wings.

"If there's like an edge rusher, who do we rank higher? Who is the best player? A good safety sitting there?" Guenther asked. "It used to be in the past, 'We've got to get this position. One way or another. We have to fill this role.' We don't have that hole right now on defense."

This isn't 2006 (Johnathan Joseph), 2007 (Leon Hall) and 2012 (Dre Kirkpatrick), when they absolutely had to have a first-round corner.

"I think the difference between now and then, you looked at our roster our starting lineup and we had a certain hole here we have to fill. Now it's we can get this guy, we would be pretty damn good," Guenther said. "It's not like we have to have this guy. We've done a pretty good job these last few years drafting young guys. We come to the combine to say, 'OK, I am studying all these guys really hard because I know we are taking one of those with a first-round pick. It may be the best player, whoever is there.'"

Whoever is there?

Just by looking at the needs, three quarterbacks won't be there. And with how fast and big those top four wide receivers are performing, they most likely are going to be gone by No. 24 as well.

Then, just looking at a premium position, four offensive tackles won't be there. And, because they're so highly-rated, Clowney and outside linebackers Anthony Barr and Khalil Mack figure to be gone, too, by the time the Bengals pick.

So that's about 14 players off the board already and the Bengals are going to be rooting for Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr and LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham to crash the party before the festivities start at No. 24. They've already said they're not taking a quarterback or wide receiver No. 1.

So with people getting pushed down the board, does that put some of the top people at their position in play, like the tandem from Notre Dame in defensive end Stephon Tuitt and tackle Louis Nix? Or at safety, like Ha-Ha Clinton Dix. And maybe even the cornerbacks get pushed down. There are only two consensus first-rounders in Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, but if some of those other corners run faster than expected Tuesday they could get elevated to the first round.

Another guy to keep in mind is Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald. No. 24 might be a little high for him because while he's a Geno Atkins clone when it comes to dimensions he doesn't have that brute strength that makes Atkins a Pro Bowler and negates the size issue. But it's an interesting match. Donald says Atkins is his favorite player and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Monday the Bengals were one of nine teams that interviewed him at the combine.

That's no reason to get an antenna up because everybody talks to everybody. It's believed the Bengals had plans to huddle with some quarterbacks, tackles, and cornerbacks, so who knows when and where they would go for any of them?

The Bengals could be in line for a right end if they lose Michael Johnson to free agency. Guenther isn't ready to say yet he can be replaced by the tandem of Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt. Hunt played a lot of left end as a rookie and asked if he can be a right end, Guenther said, "I don't know. I have to figure it out. I don't want to pinpoint anything."

Complicating Hunt's status is that he's heading into only his sixth year of playing football, but Guenther said he saw enough to give him some special work this spring.

"One of my plans with him is to just maybe spend some individual time with Margus in the spring and get him up to speed with some different things," Guenther said. "The first year, because he's still new to the game in general, you know you're in the NFL and you know the speed of the game and you know you're against good tackles week in and week out, I think he knows what to expect a little bit better now. Hopefully he'll make that jump this year. We're going to need him to."

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