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Peko departure signals shift in defense; Bengals eye vets and rookies


Domata Peko: he played the eighth most games in Bengals history.

The Bengals' faith in their drafts claimed another franchise icon this weekend when nose tackle Domata Peko took a two-year deal to shore up new head coach Vance Joseph's defensive line in Denver.

Peko is the first visible casualty of a defense trying to get younger, faster, and saltier. The Bengals have left no doubt they're looking to freshen up the defensive legs with the last draft and the next one, where some of their 11 picks are targeted for the defensive line.

The Bengals are also combing the second wave of free agents, although it's believed they're not on the verge of any deals and are in the kick-the-tires mode. Still, in the coming days they'll visit with such free vets as pass-rushing end Connor Barwin as well as old friend Andre Smith, their former right tackle of seven years before he went to Minnesota last year.

With 171 games Peko played more games up front than any other Bengal but legendary nose tackle Tim Krumrie and the fourth most of any Bengals defender ever. His active streak of 118 straight is just behind Krumrie's 122 for fifth on the franchise list.

But his prominent role in the community and in the locker room was incalculable. It's fitting that he left within 48 hours of his 2006 draft partner, left tackle Andrew Whitworth. They came in together, coached their respective sides of the ball during the 2011 lockout, and left tied with the most post-season appearances by any Bengal on offense or defense with six.

Peko would have returned only in a back-up role behind 2016 fourth-round pick Andrew Billings and when Denver neared a $4 million average the Bengals were out. Billings, rated as high as the first round on some boards, missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury. He had been projected to play a lot in a rotation and he'll do that now as a starter backed up by veteran Pat Sims with the likelihood of a drafted rookie to join the mix.

And behind Pro Bowl three technique Geno Atkins is another fourth-rounder that hasn't play because of injuries in 2015 product Marcus Hardison.  Last year's No. 1 pick, cornerback William Jackson, is also expected to get a heavy dose of snaps behind starters Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick after he missed all last season with a torn pectoral muscle.

Joseph, who coached the Bengals secondary in 2014 and 2015, kept Peko in mind when the Broncos lost nose tackle Sylvester Williams to Tennessee as he bids to keep their fourth-ranked defense intact. The Bengals are also relying on another draft pick to replace Whitworth from 2015 in first-rounder Cedric Ogbuehi.

This one is going to be a huge draft on each side of the ball with those 11 picks. It has been assumed that the Bengals are going to opt for a running back fairly high during the weekend of April 27-29 and the evidence came  this week with two visits. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon visited Paul Brown Stadium this weekend on the heels of a story that the Bengals were one of five teams that met with him on campus last week.

Mixon is a first-round talent but he's under intense scrutiny after a year-long suspension for punching a woman. The Bengals appear to be undergoing an exhaustive vetting of Mixon that began with scouts and coaches meeting him in Norman last week. When he came to PBS Saturday it's believed he met with Bengals president Mike Brown as well as head coach Marvin Lewis.

No matter what back they draft, it's going to make things crowded with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, who they hope is back early in the season off ACL surgery. Free-agent Rex Burkhead, who waited three years in that backfield to get a shot, reportedly has visited the Falcons.

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