Updated: 2 a.m.
GEORGETOWN , Ky. — Andre Smith and Max Jean-Gilles could only watch the Bengals practice Tuesday night here at Georgetown College, but it was for the last time as the Bengals and the NFL prepare for all players to participate Thursday in the wake of a ratified collective bargaining agreement.
With the Bengals off Wednesday, the next time they step on the field they'll have what offensive line coach Paul Alexander called "a new team," and his unit suddenly becomes quite intriguing. For the first time in his three exasperating years as a Bengal, right tackle Andre Smith prepares for his first practice ever at Georgetown College, while Jean-Gilles becomes part of a guard mix that has suddenly gone from thin to competitive.
"Lightning quick" is what Alexander called Smith in Tuesday's half-speed drills that marked his return to the field.
And, suddenly after days of signing and shuffling, the Bengals should have pretty close to the roster they want when practice gets underway at 7 p.m. Word is that talks with WILL linebacker Brandon Johnson have progressed rapidly, potentially filling out the Cincinnati linebacker corps on paper with the new starting lineup of Manny Lawson-Rey Maualuga-Thomas Howard backed up by the leading candidates of third-rounder Dontay Moch, special teams ace Dan Skuta, and what looks like Johnson, last year's special teams captain.
The Bengals would also like to re-sign defensive lineman Jon Fanene in talks that have always been on. They're now at the point with 90 projected players that guys are going to have to be let go. On Tuesday two college free agents got the word, Bowling Green long snapper Neal Dahlman and Baldwin-Wallace linebacker Keith Darbut.
Smith didn't practice because the coaches wanted him to work on football skills for the past five days after a strenuous offseason he rehabbed his twice broken foot and slimmed down to his NFL-low 333 pounds. After going through walkthrough and installation along with some half-speed drills, Smith got cleared to go full blast Thursday.
The Bengals have given out a batch of one-year deals to their group of free agents, more indications they are leaning to extending some of their own players and the most impressive one-year guys from this year under this year's salary cap.
With cornerback Leon Hall, center Kyle Cook, and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga on the top of that list (and what about left tackle Andrew Whitworth and wide receiver Jerome Simpson?), the Bengals reacted as expected in the first post-T.O. free agent class. The only player over the age of 30 is cornerback Nate Clements with the hope they may extend some of those 27-28 guys such as Lawson and Jean-Gilles if they pan out.
"I like our guard situation," said Alexander after watching fourth-round pick Clint Boling finish another session running with the ones. "Boling has impressed me. He's tremendously smart. Real bright-eyed with strong hands and he's quick."
Now comes the 6-3, 358-pound Jean-Gilles for a one-year deal that reports say is for $1.5 million. He started 24 games for the Eagles in five seasons, but Alexander says he'll need time to develop before competing at either side "and I think he can." Jean-Gilles prefers the right side but played both in Philadelphia, a club that sent him into free agency when it drafted Baylor guard Danny Watkins in the first round.
"The Eagles took care of me; they drafted me," said Jean-Gilles, a fourth-rounder in 2006. "There's no bad blood, but I wouldn't mind playing them."
Starting left guard Nate Livings is among the veteran free agents that return Thursday while right guard Bobbie Williams continues to practice. Left guard looks to be the most available even though Williams is 34 and heading into the last year of his deal. Alexander counts him as one of his linchpins with left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center Kyle Cook, but you don't have to be Walter Camp to figure the Bengals may have just signed the heir apparent to Williams' spot.
"I was told I'm competing for a starting job and the future is in my hands," Jean-Gilles said. "I've been doing that for years, so it's nothing new."
Jean-Gilles comes out of the rough-and-tumble NFC East, so his mauling style fits the AFC North.
"He's like the kind of guys we have," Alexander said. "Big, powerful, tough explosive guys."
And one of those guys is the club's own fifth-rounder from last year, guard Otis Hudson. Alexander says if Smith isn't his most improved, Hudson is. But Smith is going to dominate the news this camp if he can stay healthy, an achingly elusive achievement for the star-crossed sixth pick in the 2009 draft.
"Enough is enough. I felt like it's time for me to do what I'm supposed to do," Smith said in what amounted to an under-the-lights confessional after practice. "I just felt like I could have done things better. This offseason I took everything to heart more seriously and do the things I'm supposed to do and be the Andre I'm supposed to be. To live up to the hype."
Smith looks good and sounds even better. He says some of his linemates have told him how much better he looks over last year and maybe the biggest thing is that he believes it.
"It's the best I've felt since college," he said. "I can't wait for Thursday."
As Alexander said, "I wish today was Thursday. I wish yesterday was Thursday."
QUICK-HITTERS: A few observations from Tuesday night's practice in shoulder pads and shorts:
» No question that rookie free-agent kicker Thomas Weber of Arizona State has a huge leg. He traded 49-yarders with Mike Nugent and his had more juice, but it was Nugent that responded after Weber drilled it.
» Massachusetts rookie free agent running back John Griffin continued to impress and seventh-rounder Jay Finley and CFA Jonathan Williams weren't too far behind. Griffin isn't afraid to dish out a pop while running.
» Griffin scored a touchdown on a 10-yard burst where he showed good anticipation and got a nice block on the safety from wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, in his first practice after being claimed from the Rams.
» Safety Reggie Nelson got in trouble for one of his pops, which sent rookie free agent tight end Colin Cochart reeling after he caught the ball. Head coach Marvin Lewis chewed out Nelson and Cochart later gave safety Chris Crocker a big enough pop that it drew oohs and ahs. By the way, Cochart, out of South Dakota State, has been impressive. He could be making a run for the third tight end spot behind Jermaine Gresham and Chase Coffman if the Bengals don't claim one or go get Reggie Kelly, which seems not to be in the cards at the moment.
» Starting receivers A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson bonded a bit with quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton threw a great 40-yard ball over Simpson's shoulder in 11-on-11 and Simpson showed great concentration to haul it in despite cornerback Fred Bennett hanging on him. On the first snap of a red-zone drill, Dalton found Green in the back of the end zone.
» Sixth-rounder Ryan Whalen, out of Stanford, stretched out to make a nice diving catch on the sidelines.
» Kentucky linebacker DeQuin Evans, a crowd favorite, doesn't mind flying around and hitting. He gave Gresham a shot on third-and-goal from the 7.
» Moch got carted off early with cramps, but looks to be OK.
» Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski has yet to take a snap as a Bengal, but he sure has done a lot of coaching. Along with Dalton he's also been spending time talking to Green. And Tuesday night after practice he was working with another shelved free agent, runninng back Brian Leonard, as well as his old Toledo buddy, Hawkins.