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Hobson's Choice: Return end game

Q: I just read your article about Darrin Simmons wanting a stud for a return man. And I was wondering why you only focused on receivers in the draft. Why not a CB who could eventually replace Deltha O'Neal as the nickel corner? There are some pretty good corners out there that do both. Just curious.
--Justin R., Tulsa, OK

JUSTIN: Never would have thought this would be said even a year ago, but there's a bigger need at receiver than cornerback. No question, you can always use a good corner but with O'Neal coming back they need some depth at receiver now.

Mike A., out of Hicksville, Ohio has the same point about Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski, but the Bengals already spent two picks at safety last year and if they need anything there it's probably a veteran, although they seem extremely lukewarm about dropping a one-year deal on the Patriots' Eugene Wilson after he's played less than 50 percent of the snaps the past two seasons. It seems they'd prefer to have the compensatory pick they'd lose in '09 if they signed him.

O'Neal seemed to grow comfortable in the nickel role last season and he played effectively and they seem content to have him back. At age 31, limited at times by his knee, and scheduled to make $2.85 million, he probably understands he could be doing worse.

The Bengals also seem to have some regard for their young corner David Jones, the Saints' fifth-round draft pick last year that they picked up on waivers after Cutdown Day. He played in seven games as a specialist and is making the transition from Division II Wingate. But he's big (6-0, 196), athletic, and doesn't turn 23 until the second week of this season.

Plus, Blue Adams appears to be penciled in as a corner for what he can do on cover teams.

With free safety Madieu Williams gone, what they really need is a guy that can swing between safety and corner. They don't appear to have him right now. They think Ethan Kilmer can do it, but he didn't start playing defense until two years ago and he's coming off a season-ending knee injury.

Jones has the size and athleticism to do both and he'll no doubt get a shot, but he's never played safety.

At this point, anyway, I would think they are thinking receiver first.

Q: It's very confusing to me as to why so many linebackers are being acquired by the team yet the talk of a 3-4 seems to not be in the mix. What is your take on what direction the Bengals defense will go? Do you think that in third-and-long situations they may roll out a hybrid 3-4 just to cast doubt or create confusion in opposing QBs?
--Tom C., Chicago

TOM: It seems to be what new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has been talking about. A mix out of a 4-3 base, but with so many question marks at linebacker they apparently feel the need to get some young ones and you would hope they would get some middle linebacker insurance.

The Bengals need some type of depth in the middle if Ahmad Brooks isn't the answer. And you can't assume anything on Odell Thurman. No one else seems thick enough.

Don't look for veterans like Al Wilson, Takeo Spikes or Brian Simmons. They seem adamant about not signing a double-digit years guy.

The Antwan Odom signing of a 4-3 defensive end would seem to indicate that the base is going to stay a 4-3. But Zimmer is already on record as saying the best defense is one that the offense doesn't know is coming.

And they have played forms of a 3-4 in the past on third down, but it sounds like it could be more hardcore. Particularly if they use more linebackers in pass-rush roles, like Brooks, Rashad Jeanty and Eric Henderson.

But Zimmer is going to do what he did in Dallas and Atlanta. Look at what he's got in the spring, and do what he feels his personnel can do best. And, hopefully, they are still gathering players.

Q: The Bengals appear defense-focused in the coming draft, and for good reason. But shouldn't the Bengals look for insurance on the offensive line, especially center? Ghiaciuc is cutting his teeth in the trenches, but what if he gets injured against opponents in a division currently beefing up the defensive tackle position? Carson will have a tough time moving the ball if the backup center is overwhelmed and undersized. What's the current plan, and do you think the Bengals will try to target this need in either the first or second day?
--Keith J., Stuttgart, Germany

KEITH: After listening to Marvin last month, the Bengals appear pretty committed to Ghiaciuc. Why else would he have called him out about getting a better handle on the mental aspect of the game?

And that seems to be the concern more than the physical part. He'll certainly be tested there with bouts against Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams in Cleveland, but the coaches feel like he does a good job when it comes to blocking his guys.

Plus, they like the backup, last year's seventh-rounder, Notre Dame's Dan Santucci. At 305 pounds, he's big enough and they think he has picked up the game pretty well. He practices well and they love his intangibles.

So, no, drafting a center or any offensive lineman doesn't appear to be a priority. Not when you have to find a spot for Stacy Andrews, their franchise player who is going to get the chance to start.

That said, if there's a guy on the board they didn't think was going to be there ...

They didn't plan to draft an offensive lineman when they plucked Eric Steinbach at No. 33 in 2003 and Andrew Whitworth at No. 55 in 2006. But those guys had too high of a grade to pass up.

The only place you can probably rule out a lineman is the first round. But even that's not a lock if the grades rule.

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