Opening Comments:** ML: "It's been a good kickoff to our offseason program the last week. Guys are in the second week of that right now. Good to have them back here and working, and I'm excited about that. With the upcoming NFL Draft this Thursday evening, we'll continue to add to the football team. As we go into the draft, we've been in the process for a while now and feel pretty good about where we are. We think we have a good sense for the first 20 picks that will go off the board; we'll be pretty well set where we are at 21. It's always fun to get involved in this area and watch the players on tape, and meet the players, try to evaluate them and rate them, and get them put up on the board, and see how they'll best help us as we go forward with things."
James Harrison was officially signed today. Do you have any comments on that?
ML: "It's great to get that done prior to the draft. It gives us a sense of where we are, and it's another part defensively. We all will be excited to have James join us. He came in here and had a great visit and kind of bared his soul on things to us. He showed really the kind of person he was for us. That was great. He worked on the field for us, which not a lot of guys at this point in his career would be willing to do. It was great. Some of our young guys who just got back to town were out there that day. It was interesting perspective for them to see him do that for us."
In a perfect world, would you like to see a resolution with respect to Andre Smith before draft?
ML: "In a perfect world, we would. I am hopeful we can get a solution done there prior to the draft. I know Andre would like to get it done, and I think he'd feel better about things so he doesn't get lost without a chair somewhere."
Would you term the chances mostly sunny, partly cloudy, or thunderstorms at the moment?
ML: "(Laughs) I don't know. The sun is emerging maybe. Obviously it's been a process, and hopefully we can get it concluded here prior to the draft."
Are there areas in the draft you see as deeper than others?
ML: "In general, there are offensive linemen that will end up being good players in the National Football League, and there are defensive linemen that will end up being good players. Maybe there's a glut of those two groups, with guys with similar bodies and so forth. There's probably not a consensus of players throughout the 32 teams after maybe two or three players this year in all positions. I don't know that it's been much like that in many years past, so that's good for us, with three picks we have early on, the first-rounder and two second rounds.
"We have an opportunity to get guys who we'll feel really, really good about. Like last year, they could end up at positions where they are not expected to step in and be starters right away. Or they could end up at spots where maybe they could come in right away and compete to be the starter, when there is a larger opportunity made available."
People think there will be more trading down than trading up, but do you think teams will still move up for a player if they really want him?
ML: "If you have a particular need, and maybe the position lends to one or two players, maybe there will be teams that are interested in moving up and getting their player, if they have a gaping hole or a gaping need and they feel that strongly about it. But it's hard to know what's going on in the 31 other spots that way. There are only a few teams that tend to trend that way most of the time anyway. But it could happen. It will play out come Thursday evening."
Is it easier to move up or down now because of the new CBA and scaled contracts?
ML: "It might be, maybe those top three or four picks. I still think they're pretty significant because you're talking about a $20 (million) or … I don't know what the rate will be this year, but I know in A.J. Green's case, it was $24, $25, $28 million guaranteed money. And that was two drafts ago. So that's still a significant chunk of money. But I don't know that. I know it's not the big ranges of what it used to be."
Are you more prone to move down than to move up?
ML: "I don't know. I think we'll evaluate things as it goes and go from there."
It's April, but how is Dre Kirkpatrick coming along, and how much does his outlook affect what you're doing in preparation for the draft?
ML: "It's always good when you answer your question before you ask it (laughs). It is only April, and his outlook affects zero what we're doing now, really. We drafted him last year as a football player, and he did a good job when he had an opportunity to play. And that's what we expect from him."
You have a deep roster, and with four picks in the first three rounds, you'll be adding more depth. That has to be exciting:
ML: "I think it's a great situation, because we can continue to add some depth and guys that have an opportunity really to make a significant impact at some point. But we're still trying to get some of the guys going from last year. We were able to do some of that through the attrition of free agency, which is good, and provide some more opportunity, particularly on the defensive line. So now we get a chance to replenish some spots which seem to be deep, both in the secondary and in the defensive line, where we seem to be the deepest at this point. But I think you never have enough of those kind of players.
"And would like to continue to add depth at linebacker, get some younger, athletic bodies. We got two guys last year who came here undrafted and made significant impacts (Vontaze Burfict and Emmanuel Lamur). We've got to keep at that. We've got to keep working at improving our linebacker corps. With James (Harrison), that was a big addition. It kind of revved us from where we were a year ago, a step up from where we were a year ago in an area where I hoped to try to improve in some way.
"So we were able to do that. But I think the same thing offensive line-wise -- we've got an opportunity to add younger guys. We've had good success with these young guys we've been taking on the offensive line being able to come in here and contribute for us. We've got to keep that going. Running back situation, we've got an opportunity to get better there, and then receiver and tight end. And so I don't see, literally, an area on our football team that wouldn't fit what we're talking about."
In terms of a safety, what are the things you're looking for?
ML: "We want to see guys who have great range. Mike (Zimmer) and I see things in exactly the same way, that's it difficult to play NFL defense right now if you don't have guys with some range, some flexibility, some hips, and some ability to cover down. Things we ask our safeties to do all the time. We want to pressure people, and when you pressure people, somebody is put in position that they've got to be in coverage. So we're looking for some athleticism in our safeties. We've taken the young kids in the past that have those qualities. They've not been able to go out and sustain on the field at this point, but we'll see what happens through this offseason.'
This might be first time a running back doesn't go in the first round. Is the position being devalued?
ML: "I think we're going through a trend. There's a trend in college right now. It's kind of like the same thing that's happened with linebacker on the defensive side of the ball in college. Everything is trending to your defensive ends, your athleticism is trending to your outside corners, and so it's moving out of there. The same thing has occurred a little bit at running back. You have kids that in the past may have been running backs who now are playing receiver. Or they're playing quarterback or other spots on the offensive team. It has certainly happened with fullbacks. I think it's just a phase and a trend we're going through, and it's probably a one-year thing. There are kids in this draft that played the running back position in college who are going to be productive NFL backs. I don't doubt that at all."
Half of your linebackers are undrafted free agents. How much of your time is spent on that part of it, when the draft is done, getting everything in order to get the free agents you want?
ML: "I think it's an important thing to fill in the roster at the end. (Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin) has done study after study on that. There's really no correlation to the guy that we pay a more significant signing bonus as opposed to the guy we offer an opportunity. It's what you do once you're here that allows you to stay here. Once you walk through this door and you're part of the football team, it doesn't matter how you got here. It's what you do once you're here to stay here.
"I think people adhere to that. I think agents understand that here that their young kid is going to get an opportunity to show in the preseason. And if he can't stay here, maybe he has an opportunity to hook on with one of the other 31 clubs. So we've provided good opportunity for guys who fit our need.
"The thing I urge the coaches and scouts to do, when we're signing these guys, is make sure they have some quality that makes them unique to stay here. Not just to fill it in with a slug. We want a guy that has some kind of quality that makes him have an opportunity to stay on the football team. If we do that, we can coach it and enhance it. And maybe they do. Maybe they mature and make it to the practice squad for a year and then see what happens."
What's it been like without Jim Anderson around?
ML: "Well, you miss Jim being around. He really had a passion for looking at these young guys. Before I was here in Cincinnati they did (scouting) a little differently, and Jim spent a lot of time on the road. There's not an area scout or young coach that didn't see Jim Anderson out on the road there, working these young running backs out. We miss that part."
"Every time someone tells me they run into Jim, they say he's doing well. I think that's the best part of it. When you spend as long doing this job as he did, you hope to have an opportunity, when you take a step back from it, to realize the things you've been missing in life and to really enjoy those things. I think he and (wife) Marcia have had an opportunity to do that thus far. I think they still will. The door is always open here, and I expect him to pop in and out from time to time, because it's hard to go out of here cold turkey."
Having a guy like Hue Jackson for the transition, I assume it's been seamless?
ML: "Yeah, it's been great. Hue is excited. He's looked at it for a couple of years through a different set of eyes, both as a coordinator and as a head coach. He's had an opportunity to look at some guys at the position and is really a valuable resource for me, just as he was a year ago, but being back here for the second year, he's a bigger part of the process."
When looking at running backs, are you looking for a contrast to BenJarvus (Green-Ellis), or just the best guys regardless of type?
ML: "That's a good question. I think yes and no. Yes, if we could contrast from Benny a little bit, that would be at some point pretty good. But the most important thing is to have a guy who is going to make an impact over the next four seasons, minimum, and let's make sure we've got a guy that can handle that. That he's healthy and sturdy and can do those things we need. That's really what we're trying to look hard at in that spot."
At what point in the draft do you switch from need to taking the best player, no matter what position?
ML: "In the last few years, we have looked to get a (running) back in the top half of the draft, and we've not done that. We went a few years with tight end that way, and then we finally got Jermaine (Gresham) where it fit. Before that, we'd go to pick, there would be another guy who was playing another spot that we had ranked higher, and I would say that's the same case (with running backs recently). I would say we probably try to hold as true to that as we can.
"I think we have enough ability to fill depth needs that no one would ever know whether we had the guy ranked here or here. They're going to be that close. There are things that publicly nobody knows about a player -- where he is on the field and off the field, and so forth, and is he a good fit for us? That's why sometimes the 'experts' feel like that guy is the best guy, and they'll say, 'Why didn't they take that guy?' Well, they probably didn't take him because by their information, it wasn't a good fit for them, for whatever reasons they are."