2-18-04, 7 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals ride to the scouting combine Wednesday with enough assumptions to fill the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, where the estimated 300 college prospects are to be poked, probed, and, processed through Tuesday.
The working assumptions are:
What happens in the interviews and the workouts this week is decisive enough to determine the fate of a field headed by 60 defensive linemen and 56 defensive backs, just what the Bengals are supposed to be looking for in the April 24-25 NFL Draft.
But you know what they say when you assume. . .
"This team needs help in a lot of places," Lewis said this week. "Why pick a bad player just because he's offense or defense? We didn't do that last year. We didn't go offense or defense. We picked a player. The best player. We did that the whole first day. What position on this team wouldn't we like a good, young player? Other than quarterback because Carson (Palmer) is the heir apparent and maybe fullback because (rookie) Jeremi (Johnson) started and played well, where wouldn't we want a good young player?"
And, as far as the workouts go, "You can't draft a guy on what he does in his underwear. You always have to go to the tape before you make a decision. It's a step in the process. Not any more important than all the other steps."
OK, rip up the first and third assumptions. This week is mainly for physicals and job interviews. And not even combine interviews can really blow a guy out of the water. For the first time this week, players are staying over three nights in Indy instead of two and a big part of the reason is to get in their interviews with the 32 teams.
When the Bengals met Oregon State cornerback Dennis Weathersby last year at the combine, word was that he was quiet, shy, and a tough interview. But a follow-up visit to his campus at Oregon State and in-depth interviews with his college coaches convinced the Bengals that Weathersby is a smart,
complex guy from a hard background worthy of a fourth-round pick despite getting shot a week before the draft.
And Lewis got a glimpse of his spirit during the talk that he had to like. When Weathersby walked into the room, the Bengals were aware he didn't plan to run in the workouts to show off what many thought were first-round credentials in a field including Terence Newman and Marcus Trufant.
"We shamed him into working out at the combine," Lewis said. "I was one of the people that flat out challenged him. Newman and Trufant were going to run and if he wanted to be held in the same regard, he ought to run, too. I don't know if that's why he ran, but he did. You like that part of it. It kept the balls in the air."
The Weathersby pick also reflects Lewis' belief that it's important to see the player in his own environment, such as the college campus, or, at the very least, interview the people who deal with him every day.
But you can't assume that if a guy decides not to work out at Indy that it is going to hurt him in the long run. Usually, only the top players decide to forgo the workout and focus on a personal workout closer to the draft.
But look at the last five players the Bengals have drafted No. 1. Quarterbacks Akili Smith (1999) and Carson Palmer (2003) ran and threw. Left tackle Levi Jones (until his hamstring gave out in 2002) did all the workouts. Wide receiver Peter Warrick (2000) didn't work out and defensive end Justin Smith (2001) didn't run, but did lift weights.
And, as long as we're debunking assumptions, don't write down a linebacker or defensive lineman in ink in the 17th slot. There are some draft observers who believe the only defensive position of value at No. 17 is going to be a cornerback. One of the proponents of the theory is long-time Bengals' observer Jerry Jones, the former Cincinnati pharmacist who publishes the draft survey "The Drugstore List."
With the Bengals figuring to be seeking a run-stopper at either defensive tackle or middle linebacker, the thought is the former is going to be gone and the latter can be had rather efficiently in free agency or later in the draft.
Jones figures defensive tackles Tommie Harris of Oklahoma and Vince Wilfork of Miami are going to be off the board, and while some mock drafts have the Bengals taking Maryland junior Randy Starks, others have him projected as a possible tweener between the first and second rounds.
"Once Harris and Wilfork are gone, there isn't much there as far as run-stoppers go," Jones said. "But there's a very good possibility that just one cornerback is going to be gone before the Bengals pick. And that's going to leave them with three or four very good players to choose from."
Jones isn't sure which one of them will go first, but he's looking at guys like USC's Will Poole, South Carolina's Dunta Robinson, and Oklahoma's Derrick Strait, as well as juniors Chris Gamble of Ohio State and Virginia Tech's DeAngelo Hall. Gamble is the tallest at 6-1, but he's also the rawest.
The 5-11 Poole is perhaps the most polished and well-rounded, but teams are anxious to check the status of his injured Achilles' that knocked him out of the Senior Bowl. Despite his absence last month, Poole's stock has continued to rise as a guy who showed in USC's bowl victory that he can stop the run and as well as blitz.
When players do work out in Indy, they run the 40-yard dash (and are timed in the first 10 and 20 yards as well), lift a 225-pound bar as many times as possible, do the standing broad jump, the vertical jump, and shuttle runs of 20 yards, 60 yards, and around cones.
But the most important combine work is probably in position-specific drills. Take a guy like South Carolina's Robinson, a 5-11, 185-pounder that Jones thinks could end up being a possible safety. Scouts then figure to keep a close eye on the agility and movement drills. Because Gamble is such an impressive athlete still new to the position, teams would like to see just how much he has to work on his technique and if he's a project or a problem-solver.
"Look at a guy like Strait," Jones said. "He's only 5-9, but he's got a 40-inch vertical. That's extremely impressive. And he's probably the most experienced of these guys. There are a lot of different kinds of corners, but it certainly looks like they're going to be able to get a good young one."
Of course, Jones is pulling for the corner because he knows the Bengals have never drafted a defensive back in the first round and used him as a cornerback.
But there is also Lewis talking about not assuming. The last time the Bengals had the 17th pick was in 1998, and it was their second pick in the first round. After taking Auburn linebacker Takeo Spikes at No. 13, the Bengals stayed with their defensive plan and selected North Carolina linebacker Brian Simmons even though such offensive players as Marshall wide receiver Randy Moss were on the board.
Would a similarly huge offensive threat like that be passed over in the Lewis era?
Not if you go by last year's first day. After taking Palmer No. 1, the Bengals then took two offensive players thought to be possible first-round picks but weren't because they slipped because of position (guard Eric Steinbach in the second round), or had a neck injury (wide receiver Kelley Washington in the third round). Plus, there need for a corner was alleviated by the Tory James signing.
Jones says there should be some help at backer and on the defensive line on the first day and beyond. Oklahoma outside linebacker Teddy Lehman is a tough guy listed at 244 pounds who can also probably play in the middle and might be available in the second round. Miami's Jonathan Vilma probably won't get to the second round and he also might be able to play both outside and inside, but at 6-0, 231 pounds, his undersize makes it tough to take him at No. 17.
Guys they could take later are people they scouted at the Senior Bowl in Nebraska's 6-1, 223-pound Demorrio Williams and Auburn's 6-2, 237-pound Dontarrious Thomas. There are also potential second-day people like Southern Mississippi's Rod Davis, a 238-pounder who constantly rung up 10 or more tackles a game in the middle
First-day run stuffers on the line could include Oregon State's Dwan Edwards, Oklahoma's Marcus Tubbs, and Florida State's Darnell Dockett.
As usual, Lewis is going to be a whirlwind this week in Indy. On Wednesday night, he'll be part of a group dining with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue discussing minority hiring issues. On Thursday morning, he'll take part in a breakfast named for Fritz Pollard, the NFL's first African-American head coach, and on Friday morning he'll be one of the league's selected head coaches to meet the national media.