* A second-round gem, Andrew Whitworth is coming off his best season.*
MOBILE, Ala. _ This is how long and well the Bengals have been drafting offensive tackles:
One of the leading prospects here this week at the Reese's Senior Bowl, LSU left tackle La'el Collins, grew up in Baton Rouge playing high school and college ball with Bengals running back Jeremy Hill. But he says he was too young to remember Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth helping lead LSU to a national championship.
But, "I've talked to him a lot," Collins says.
Not only that, but he was two years old when the Bengals took their best right tackle of all time in the 1996 draft. Incredibly, from the day they drafted Willie Anderson, they've had basically two right tackles with him and Andre Smith.
From the time they saw Levi Jones play in the 2002 Senior Bowl, he and Whitworth have been their only two left tackles. And the guys that filled in the most, Anthony Collins and Stacy Andrews, received big free-agent deals. The stability at tackle has been as important as any in coaching or at quarterback in the 13 seasons of head coach Marvin Lewis.
"You might call it a perfect storm," says Paul Alexander, the longest serving offensive line coach in the NFL who was in his second season for the Anderson draft.
This may be the year for another one. Whitworth and Andre Smith are heading into the last year of their deals and although Whitworth is coming off his best season, he turns 34 late in the year and they may decide to start grooming a successor. It's been six years since they took Smith with the sixth pick in the draft and nine since they took Whitworth in the second round and one of the questions is if there'll be a good enough left tackle left at No. 21.
"You can get a right tackle later," Alexander says. "It's tough after No. 21 to find a left tackle because they're so unique. There aren't 32 guys in the world that can play left tackle. But you have to see how the draft unfolds."
Mike Mayock, the NFL Network's draft analyst, likes the field of tackles and thinks the Bengals have a shot. It's too early, but he thinks it could happen.
"It's too early to know where everyone belongs, but I think this is going to be a good group," Mayock says. "If they want a tackle, there'll be someone there. I just don't know who it is yet."
Go back to Arizona State's Jones, then flying under the radar in the '02 Senior Bowl. He's the only one of the group that played in this game and Alexander left here convinced he could be an elite left tackle worthy of the 10th pick, where they took Anderson six years before.
"He was so quick, so long in the arms that I thought he'd be unbelievable," Alexander says, and he was until his knees gave out in 2008.
Working with the personnel department, Alexander's specifications have become well known in the draft room. Starting with big and ending with big. How big? He says 6-4 Andre Smith is the only short one.
"Big," Alexander says. "They all have the same physical requirements for my techniques to work. Long arms, quick twitch, and balance. I need guys with long arms. And big. It may be a simple thing. But they say the same thing about Whit that they said about Willie. Big and heavy so you can't run over him, and long and tall so you can't get around him."
A player not only has to fit what he's asked to do, Alexander has to develop him once he comes to the club. He figures he and Whitworth learn something new from each other every three weeks or so.
When Alexander went to Baton Rouge for Whitworth's pro day, he was sitting in the film room with another offensive line coach. Alexander already loved him and he was probably his favorite player in the 2006 draft. The other coach had him in the seventh round.
"When we finished watching the tape, the coach asks me, 'Now what do you think?'" Alexander says. "I told him I was more convinced than ever and he said he was convinced he was a seventh-rounder. Just different techniques. You have to have the guys that have the physical talents to do what you teach."
Like he always does, Alexander came down here with his pile of 3 by 5 index cards and gives each offensive lineman his own card. From what he calls the bathing suit competition (the weigh-in) to the stretching exercises to the one-on-one pass rush drills, Alexander gives them a grade on everything they do this week.
Five is a Pro Bowler, four is a good starter, three is a guy that can only make it, two is a guy fit only for training camp and one is a reject. For instance, he won't write down the length of his arms, but he'll give him a grade for it. Alexander spends practices jotting notes, traits, and grades on the cards, adds up the grades, shuffles the cards and comes up with his first of many orders.
"A lot of times the (Senior Bowl) order is different than the order you get watching the film," Alexander says. "There are so many factors in the final evaluation and this is one of them."
He can't begin to synthesize maybe the most important factor of all until he sits down to talk with them at next month's NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. He learned his lesson early on when he got burned by the intangibles. Or lack of them.
"They have to have toughness, passion, drive, the will to compete. And they have to get football. Some guys are smart, but they don't get football," he says.
And coaching is a big factor. If there aren't 32 left tackles out there, he doubts there are 100 good college line coaches and he knows most of them. Good and bad.
"I'll tell you what I buy into," Alexander says. "A guy who has done well but played for a lesser line coach, I'll give the guy more consideration. But if a guy plays for a great line coach and he doesn't play very well, I won't touch him with a 10-foot pole."
He's probably taking a good look at Collins. He's got the size at 6-5, 308 pounds, he's got the college coach, and he's getting the raves from the web sites this week, like from CBS Sports, which said he's reinforced his first-round grades.
"(Collins) took the majority of his snaps at left tackle," wrote CBS' Rob Rang of his work on Wednesday. "He did slide inside to left guard late in the practice, demonstrating good initial quickness and terrific power to drive defenders off the ball. Scouts love Collins' tenacity and physicality, though he'll occasionally get off-balance, leaving him vulnerable to swim moves."
Mayock likes him better at right tackle, but he thinks he'd be good on the left side.
And they have to look at Collins just because he first started blocking for Hill in high school. They've stayed close and, in fact, Collins was in Cincinnati for what he calls "one of Jeremy's coming out parties," the first 100-yard game of his career in the win over Jacksonville.
He has already talked to Hill about the draft process and plans to keep doing so with one of his best friends.
"I've talked to him about the whole process," Collins says. "His advice is to be completely up front with every coach and team and just be you. Be who you are and somebody will give you a great opportunity. I can call Jeremy any time and talk to him about anything. He's always willing to share his knowledge."
So has Whitworth. Collins says he patterns his game after Jason Peters, but he's spent time picking Whitworth's brain. He may not remember him from back in the day, but he understands what Whitworth is doing now.
"He's a monster. He never gets beat. I watch him on tape and he never gets beat," Collins says. "And he opens up holes. He's a Pro Bowl left tackle. Whit said how fast it goes by. He talks about how I should take it all in. Appreciate the opportunity you have now. You're fortunate to play this game, people see you and they want to make you part of their squad. Whit has shared a lot of knowledge with me. He played at LSU, he went to Cincinnati, he's been there for a long time, he's been successful in the league, and I've got nothing but respect for him."
It sounds like it has rubbed off.
"You'll be getting a team guy, a guy looking to lead, a guy that likes to learn, a guy who wants to compete for a Super Bowl,"' Collins says. "I want to win as badly as anybody on the team and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get that done. I'm sold out."
But who knows? Alexander and the rest of the league have just started shuffling the cards. And the Bengals may decide the tackle can wait for another round or another year.
"There's a long way to go," Alexander says of a golden road that stretches back 20 seasons.