Hobson's Choice: End to a means?

Q: Can you explain why the Bengals did not draft a DE? They were last in the NFL in sacks. The Giants just won a Super Bowl led by a team of not just four great DEs, but also DTs that can rush the passer. When you look at the Ravens team Marvin won a Super Bowl with, it started with two of the best pass rushers in the NFL and the best D-line in the NFL. The Bengals could not even pick up an undrafted free agent with ability to rush the passer? While I am on the subject, will the Bengals ever take signing undrafted free agents seriously? While most teams look at it as an eighth-round of the draft and give signing bonuses, the Bengals look at it as practice squad fodder and are content to take the leftovers. Teams have picked up Pro Bowl players and starters from the undrafted ranks. Maybe they could offer a fifth-rounder for Jason Taylor? What are your thoughts?
--Roland, South Point, OH

ROLAND: In the last two offseasons, they've written about $20 million in checks to young defensive ends named Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom. And you answered your own question: You need DTs, too.

Your point is well taken on the lack of sacks, but they went into the draft needing more DTs than DEs after the Odom signing. They also have a third-round pick in Frostee Rucker that they project to play much more at end. And then there is Jonathan Fanene, a sixth-round pick who is another end, although he could end up playing some, or both, or just tackle.

And the guys that made Marvin's defense in Baltimore weren't the ends. It was the 370-pound tackle tandem of Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa that turned middle linebacker Ray Lewis into an NFL MVP and created sacks off the edge.

To me, this is one of the great mysteries. In building his defense here, Lewis has appeared to opt for the opposite style with smaller, quicker guys like John Thornton, Bryan Robinson and Domata Peko. All fine players and they would have looked a lot better with better linebacker play behind them.

But, then again, he has also tried to go with size with guys like Adams, Daryl Gardner, Warren Sapp and Shaun Rogers, and injury and/or technicality have foiled it.

So to draft an end over a tackle, in my mind, would have been a mistake given the needs. And they caught a break when Jacksonville traded up in front of them to get Florida defensive end Derrick Harvey, a guy in the mold of Odom and Geathers and therefore not a very good fit but a guy they may have taken just because he was a pass rusher.

Taking a linebacker might not have been ideal at No. 9, either. But name one backer they had before the draft that had a combination of experience, size, athleticism and versatility. Even though Keith Rivers is a rookie, he's got big-time experience.

Your take on the college free agents I think is a bit skewed off this class because they only signed eight right after the draft.

With 10 draft picks, they only had so many spots. Particularly with no exemptions for the 80-man roster because of the demise of NFL Europe.

And with one of the seventh-round picks, they did take a pass rusher in University of Cincinnati defensive end Angelo Craig and that's why they picked up two free-agent DTs.

Antwon Burton is actually going into his third training camp after spending the last two seasons appearing in seven games in Denver, a much better value than a raw unsigned rookie.

The Bengals do study what they and other teams offer the CFAs, and they do give out bonuses like much of the NFL.

There are teams that won't pay much more than a grand and go for the leftovers, but the Bengals figure they are at a little above average when it comes to paying CFAs.

They also have a track record of going after the more highly-paid CFAs. In 2005 it was LSU center Ben Wilkerson and in 2006 it was Georgia Tech defensive end Eric Henderson. Both probably had five-figure bonuses.

And this year, Alabama cornerback Simeon Castille probably got close to that when the Bengals signed him following a draft some publications had him as a mid-draft pick on the second day.

No way do the Dolphins take less than a second for Taylor. His price is only going to go up now until the trading deadline because contenders are going to see him as the final piece. The Bengals would have a tough time fitting in his salary, but this is definitely the kind of defense he could help even if it was for just one year at age 34.

Q: Knowing LBs routinely win defensive rookie of the year honors, and our D is expected to be improved this year, do you think Rivers has as good a shot as I do of getting the award? As long as he has a solid season and our D improves, he could be viewed from the outside as the draft pick that changed things around in Cinci. Your thoughts?
--Alan M. Milwaukee, WI

ALAN: You are absolutely right. In seven of the eight seasons of this decade, a linebacker has won the Associated Press award. It starts with the Bears' Brian Urlacher in 2000 (taken with the same ninth pick as Rivers) and culminates this year with the 49ers' Patrick Willis, taken with the 11th pick. And all but two (Kendrell Bell and DeMeco Ryans) were first-round picks, so Rivers was picked in the right spot for Rookie of the Year consideration.

But if you don't get sacks (Shawne Merriman and Terrell Suggs), play in a big market (Urlacher in Chicago, Ryans in Houston, Johnathan Vilma in New York), or play on a winner (Bell in Pittsburgh), it's a tough nut.

(Ask the Bengals' Odell Thurman, who lost out to Merriman in 2005 even though the Bengals made the playoffs and San Diego didn't. Double-digit sacks do it all the time.)

But, agreed, Rivers can win AP Rookie of the Year if the Bengals contend for the AFC North title. And if they do, then that means he had a huge hand in helping the defense get back on its feet. Given that he's already perceived as an emerging leader, he would have the intangibles that can trump stats like sacks and turnovers.

That could hurt him because he's not viewed as stat flashy. He's not known as a big-play guy, but he's a playmaker as in a guy that can make all the plays that have to be made.

Yet if guys like Lawrence Jackson or Vernon Gholston get 10.5 sacks, forget it.

But Rivers needs help.

Another e-mailer asked what makes people think the drafting of Rivers is going turn out any differently than what I think he was trying to say, the first-round selections of linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons in 1998.

You don't know.

Spikes and Simmons were hurt by a defensive line that didn't keep defenders off of them, a raw secondary that never got right until they brought in veterans years later, and scheme switch in mid-1999 from a 3-4 to a 4-3.

If they don't get Rivers help up front, i.e., some big tackles that can eliminate the backwash, he'll have the same problems Spikes and Simmons did. One thing Rivers has going for him is that the Bengals have a much better secondary and rush ends than what they had in their first couple of seasons in Cincinnati.

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