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Hobson's Choice: Drafty in middle?


In your opinion, who's the best center in the draft and do we have a chance to pick him up? Are there still free-agent centers available? Anyone we can plug 'n play? The unknowns at center have me concerned!* --Jackie W., Pomeroy, OH

JACKIE: The Bengals more than likely won't get the best one, which consensus says is California's Alex Mack. No. 6 is too high and No. 38 is too late.

The Bengals had Mack at the Senior Bowl and liked his size and toughness. They also had Oregon's Max Unger and seemed pretty comfortable with him. A lot of mocks have the Steelers taking a center at No. 32 and two draftnicks, Rob Rang of and Michael Lombardi of the National Football Post, give the Steelers Mack and Unger, respectively.

In both their mocks, they were the first centers taken but some mocks have Mack going as high as the 20s. Rare is the draft that there have been two centers taken in the first round, but this would be the year because it's deep with centers.

The Bengals have to decide if it's deep enough into the third round or if they have to go before then. The presence of Dan Santucci and Kyle Cook doesn't stem the need, but it may fend off a reach and grab.

Both have yet to take an NFL snap, but they've now been in the system for three years and are considered smart, hard-nosed and good communicators. Cook flashed enough last year that the club as ready to start him until he suffered a season-ending toe injury.

Plus, if they line up between veteran guards Andrew Whitworth and Bobbie Williams, that will only help them.

Far from ideal, but the Bengals may be working backward on this. The draft could dictate if they go get a guy. No question they have been seen ad nauseum how important a veteran center is.

They saw it when Rich Braham got hurt in 2004 and 38-year-old Jerry Fontenot literally came off the street and contributed to a win with just two practices. And they've never replaced what Braham gave them.

But with no Fontenots out there, a tighter cap because of the '09 accounting rules, and a rich center class, a move for a veteran may not come until after the draft.

Q: Ben Utecht was a big disappointment last year. He did not produce like he did in Indy. Do you think he could he could resurrect himself this year or will the Bengals be looking for a TE in the draft? --Brian L., Great Falls, MT

BRIAN:Yes on both counts. He was so banged up from the get go and the offense was so screwed up even when Carson Palmer was in there, you probably ought to give Utecht a mulligan. But with Reggie Kelly heading into the last year of his deal at age 32, you have to feel that tight end is somewhere on their agenda.

Problem is, this isn't the greatest of drafts for the position.  You make a good point, though. You've got to get more out of Utecht, particularly on third down with the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Andre Caldwell might become as reliable as Houshmandzadeh over the middle one day. But he's only going into his second season and simply doesn't have the savvy or the experience on third down that Houshmandzadeh had for several years in either leading the league or among the leaders on third-down catches.

And Laveranues Coles is a different type of receiver. With 31 third-down catches, Houshmandzadeh had twice as many as Coles last season. Coles is known more for the big plays rather than the third-down catches, but he certainly has the experience and toughness to help them on third down and give them something of what Houshmandzadeh gave them.

Bottom line, though, Utecht has to be more of a factor over the middle for Carson Palmer, And, maybe more importantly, be more of a factor in the running game.

A big reason the Bengals were again less than four yards per carry running the ball was Utecht's series of injuries. While there is some concern about his blocking ability at the point of attack after last season, his absences prevented the Bengals from going with double tight ends as much as they wanted.

So Utecht probably ought to get a mulligan there, too, because he did some on-line blocking for a pretty good running game in Indy. Now that he's healthy, he has to show them he can be physical like that on a consistent basis.

They think they may have something in last year's sixth-rounder out of Villanova in Matt Sherry. Sherry was lost for the season late in camp with a shoulder injury, but before he went down he impressed with his routes and speed and his aggressiveness in blocking.

 Whether that translates remains to be seen. But given Kelly's age and the fact they have 11 draft picks, it wouldn't be surprising if they picked a tight end. 

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