INDIANAPOLIS - While the Bengals have been scouring talent for the draft this week at the NFL scouting combine they've also made it clear they're preparing to delve into free agency and that could start even before unrestricted free agency gets going in about three weeks.
The club's internal landscape on free agency is vastly different than a year ago at this time, when new head coach Zac Taylor was still completing his defensive staff as the combine got underway. This time around his coaches arrived here with lists of free agents they've been studying already for a few weeks from the research organized by director of pro scouting Steven Radicevic.
"We're way ahead," said defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo here Wednesday while noting his staff already has their list of pro day visits scheduled. "I've never been this far into the college guys in all my years in the NFL watching them, 100-plus guys whatever it is, at all the positions."
Anarumo, whose first day on the job in Cincinnati last year was actually here in Indy at the combine, is on his third team and ninth NFL season. He feels the urgency.
"We made an emphasis that this is the player acquisition period and nothing else matters to us," Anarumo said. "We have to get better. How do we do that? We have to do better coaching, we have to get some new players in here. We can work on our stuff next month. Let's know these guys inside and out, both free agency and the draft. The more information, the less error. That's the goal."
Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan is looking at upgrading the offensive line. But he also has no problem with an Opening Day lineup (from left to right) of Jonah Williams, Michael Jordan, Trey Hopkins, John Miller and Bobby Hart.
"Yeah, I feel very good about those guys," Callahan said here Wednesday morning. "Do I think there's room for improvement? Absolutely. If we can find better, we'll get better. Do I think we're in terrible shape? Not at all. I think we have good, young talent we're excited about. The jump Mike Jordan and Fred Johnson could make, we're counting on it. Put in a year with off-season training, and strength playing a factor and being comfortable in the system for an entire offseason and training camp and we're counting on those guys to step up."
Williams (first round) and Jordan (fourth round) came via the draft and Callahan also points to last year's waiver wire pickups of a pair of rookie tackles in Fred Johnson and Isaiah Prince.
"Jonah becomes a difference," said Callahan of the left tackle that missed his rookie year last season with a shoulder injury. "Bobby and John Miller played well for us. They weren't terrible. Would we like to get competitive at all spots? Of course. I think Fred will be a part of that … We have developmental guys we feel good about and guys that have played we feel good about."
It's believed the Bengals are going to move on from veteran left tackle Cordy Glenn. The fate of 2018 first-round center Billy Price is not as clear given that Trey Hopkins inked a three-year deal late last season to play the middle
"Billy had moments that were good, bad," Callahan said. "Billy is competing at the guard spots. We have guards we feel good about. Billy is part of the mix in the competition. What that means for him between now and Opening Day, I can't tell you specifically. He has to come in and compete. We expect him to get better, too, because he has to."
Anarumo wants to cut back Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins' snaps after he logged a career-high 816 plays last year. Atkins came up with just 4.5 sacks, his fewest since had three in 2014 during the season he was coming off an ACL tear.
"I've been around guys getting older and by the end of the year they're just worn down. We have to be smarter with Geno's rotation," said Anarumo, who saw Atkins play 76 percent of the snaps in the wake of season-ending injuries to Kerry Wynn, Ryan Glasgow and Renell Wren. "We were hamstrung a little bit with depth, but we'll get him a few less reps. I think you'll see a better Geno this next year."
Anarumo can see the numbers. In the four years before last season, Atkins logged between nine and 11 sacks each year while never playing more than 72 percent of the snaps and averaging 779 plays.
"He shows up for work every day. You almost have to protect him from himself," Anarumo said.
Talk about snaps. Anarumo was raving about cornerback Darius Phillips' four interceptions in 109 snaps. Compare that to veteran William Jackson's one interception in 831 snaps or his career total of two in 45 games.
Anarumo says the best players are going to play, but he needs Phillips to stay healthy after he missed eight games last season. He's looking for Jackson to be healthy after shoulder surgery and needs him to get better on the deep ball.
"Teaching ball skills, that's a God-given ability," Anarumo said. "You can get (players) to knock it down, which is a good thing, but there are two parts. Tracking it and catching it. Some guys can catch it, but they get lost when it's in the air. To say you have a guy with hands like feet and turn him into an interceptor, it's not happening. The best guys, you can see them throwing and catching. It's not hard to see."
He says safety Jessie Bates III is one of those guys with pure hands. He'd like to see him get bigger and stronger to improve his tackling, but there's no question about his hands. He puts Phillips in that class.
"I had one guy and I never thought anybody would do what he did," Anarumo said of Dolphins cornerback Dimitri Patterson. "In 2013 he played (237) snaps and had four picks … You can have four interceptions in 1,000 snaps and that's a heck of a year. (Phillips) even had one in the preseason, so he can find the ball."