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Man in the middle

INDIANAPOLIS - Wide receiver Michael Crabtree shelved until at least spring camps.

Left tackles Jason Smith and Eugene Monroe ticketed early.

Linebacker Aaron Curry long gone to the billboard of a franchise (Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City) looking to start from scratch that doesn't take quarterback Matthew Stafford.

So then, isn't it time to start thinking about Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji for the Bengals with the sixth pick?

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The best scenario for the Bengals, of course, is to trade down because it's looking more and more like they're going to get the same caliber of player at six as they will at 20. A slow, burning consensus this weekend at the NFL scouting combine is that about three to five players are worthy of the No. 6 pick and everyone else is still trying to get there.

But what about Raji?

There are those inside and outside the Bengals that loathe the thought of drafting a wide receiver or running back that high because one can always be found. And, have you ever heard of Ki-Jana Carter and Chris Perry?

And there are those that even think one of the four left tackles isn't an option that high because they all have at least one flaw. Monroe isn't all that assertive and is inconsistent. Jason Smith's frame is smaller than the specs and he doesn't have a great reach. Michael Oher is a great athlete but his intangibles aren't tangible. Andre Smith went AWOL and is going to spend the next nine weeks going through the NFL Draft equivalent of Oprah.

One argument here is that games are changed up front and the best option is the tough, relentless 6-1, 337-pound Raji who so impressed the Bengals coaching staff at last month's Senior Bowl.

He has his critics, too. Bengals blogger John Thornton, who has played tackle for Cincinnati the last six seasons, thinks highly of Raji but doesn't think he's a good enough pass rusher to go No. 6.

But it's hard to find critics who spent time with him on the field in Mobile. Try Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes.

"Love him," said Hayes after reuniting with Raji this weekend for a hello. "He's one big, tough guy. He keeps playing. Great motor."

Maybe what impressed the Bengals coaches most was the way the South schemed to run the ball away from Raji. When was the last time a team had to do that against the Bengals defense?

Remember what Raji said right after the game?

"Usually in a game they don't try to down block or pull around until you make a couple of plays. They did it right out of the gate. I got some respect from the Jacksonville staff. They had a good scheme today."

He elaborated on the Southern strategy Saturday during his combine media appearance, where he had effusive praise for Hayes and the other Bengals coaches for helping him raise his draft stock during the week of practice.

"Very helpful," he said. "They were one of the biggest reasons for my success, because of the way they coached.

"The different drills we worked on at practice. The way they coached me, I would have to say. They were coaches. They criticized when needed, but besides that, they were very helpful."

Here's another reason to draft Raji:

He's represented by David Dunn, the agent that negotiated with the Bengals for a mega deal with quarterback Carson Palmer. He also represented last year's No. 1 pick, linebacker Keith Rivers in a brief, non-confrontational holdout compared to the Perry-Justin Smith-David Pollack tractor pulls earlier this decade, and it didn't prevent Rivers from starting Opening Day.

Dunn also represents Thornton, so that made it easier for Thornton to make Raji an early subject for one of his draft Q and As on While writing about Raji, Thornton also dispensed some advice.

"He basically just told me to approach it like it's a job," Raji recalled Saturday. "Don't take anything for granted, because I'm blessed to be here. I've only talked to him a couple of times, once to do an interview, the other time on the phone."

Raji admitted it was a little weird to be interviewed by a current NFL player. But, "(Thornton) was cool about it," he said. "He was laid back. It was informal."

Which is exactly the way Raji doesn't play. He may have had just one solid season, and he may have had shoulder surgery in '07, and he may have had some off-field scrapes early in his college career, but the guy plays hard all the time.

"The best way I play football is to try to be myself. So, I'm calm before games, listen to my music," Raji said. "I don't make it all crazy, because that's how it is in real life. I play my best when I'm myself."

"A little rap, a little R&B depending on how I'm feeling," he said of his musical selections. "I kind of go with what I'm feeling that particular day. I might listen to a little more laid-back music. If that's what I'm feeling, that's what I go with."

The way Raji talks about football reminds of Bengals former Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson. He talks quickly and excitedly about football.

"Last night was interesting," he said of his first interview with teams. "(The Saints) kind of had the film set up. They had four plays that they broke down with me from this past season. They kind of wanted me to explain what we were doing on that particular play."

Like Anderson did coming out, it sounds like Raji knows the league. The tackles he admires are Tommie Harris and Albert Haynesworth.

"His combination of speed and power," he said of what he likes about Haynesworth. "He kind of keeps a guy off balance. I don't want to say my style's like him, because I kind of like to play my own game, but there are certain things I take from him."

You can tell he's also watched guys waiting in the green room on Draft Day long after they were supposed to be picked. Which is why he's not getting his hopes up.

"It happens every year. I can't really think of a particular example, but you see guys fall, guys who are supposed to be Top 10 picks," Raji said. "They go from that to the end of the first. I'm not going to put down anybody. It's none of my business, but it happens every year.

"I'm sure it happens. I'm not really worried about that. I feel my film speaks for itself. I feel my Senior Bowl week spoke for itself, so hopefully, to the decision-makers it's a good thing. Everybody's entitled to their own opinion."

Raji says he's been working on getting stronger and is convinced that he's a good enough pass rusher to be picked as high as No. 6. He goes back to Mobile.

"If I didn't show that to them in the Senior Bowl and my film, then here I'm not going to show them," he said. "This is a different format a lot of medical things, a lot of T-shirts and shorts. Not really much contact. Obviously, you're moving through different drills, but this is not the time to show you can get to the quarterback."

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