Geno Atkins

The Bengals scouting party heads south this weekend and they are looking at next week's Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala., like the No. 21 pick in the April 25 first round of the NFL Draft.

Wide open.

The personnel department can recite the North and South rosters backward, but it's the coaching staff's first glance at the prospects just beginning to immerse themselves in the draft machinery. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, just two weeks removed from trying to stop the Texans, doesn't know John Jenkins (defensive tackle, Georgia) from J.J. Wilcox (safety, Georgia Southern) yet.

But he will.

"You get to see them up close; see if they can move," Zimmer says. "I go back later and watch the practices on tape once we get an idea of who and what we're looking at and what we might do."

With such a young team, three of the top 54 picks, and no immediate and gaping holes, it looks like it could be just about anybody and everybody in the first round.

Running back? Safety? Another cornerback?

The 21st pick figures to be impacted the most by free agency. If the Bengals can't re-sign right end Michael Johnson or right tackle Andre Smith, they could use that pick on a replacement.

It's believed the Bengals have reached out to a large number of their 23 unrestricted free agents in the hopes to get a couple of deals done before free agency arrives in early March, and that they have identified Johnson and Smith as their top priorities in the process. Both have switched to high-profile agents with Smith going to CAA's Ben Dogra (A.J. Green, Robert Griffin III) and Johnson to Rick Smith of Priority Sports.

After two years of spending more cash than the $120 million salary cap, the Bengals figure to be just as active as they were in 2011 and 2012 even though the cap doesn't figure to increase much. But more so this year than last year they'll be focused on re-signing a good portion of their own while keeping in mind they also need cap space when faced with extensions for Green and quarterback Andy Dalton starting the day after the 2013 season.

That's when the Bengals will get their first chance to sign Green and Dalton, who will have one year left on their deals. But the club is also going to have to deal with two more gems on its starry defensive line, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and left end Carlos Dunlap, both free agents after this season.

Smith's arrest earlier this week for having a loaded handgun in his carry-on baggage while boarding a flight in Atlanta doesn't figure to change how the Bengals approach free agency. It's Smith's only brush with the law and he's coming off a season he played all but 15 of the snaps and had his best year since he was selected with the sixth pick in the 2009 draft.

The Bengals are also deciding if they're going to pursue some of their own free agents. You could probably put middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and kickers Josh Brown and Mike Nugent in that category.

The Bengals can also put the franchise tag on Johnson or Smith and secure them for this season, but that still won't deter them from looking at all positions in the first round. The only requirement seems to be that they want the 21st pick and the 37th pick at the top of the second round (acquired in the Carson Palmer trade) to come in and play right away, which is usually the annual goal for those picks in the first two rounds.

The numbers suggest those players won't be in Mobile, but the Jan. 26 Senior Bowl (4 p.m.-NFL Network) has more talent than in the recent past. Maybe not when it comes to first-rounders, but the second and third rounds seem to be more represented.

According to Mel Kiper Jr.'s Mock Draft on ESPN, six of his 32 first-rounders are playing next Saturday, led by Central Michigan tackle Eric Fisher at No. 11. The other five he has going in the second part of the round.

Other Kiper first-rounders for the North are Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro (No. 16) and SMU defensive end Margus Hunt (No. 32). From the South is BYU defensive end Ezekial Ansah (No. 17), Jenkins, the Georgia defensive tackle (No. 25), and Baylor wide receiver Terrence Williams (No. 23). Kiper has Wisconsin running back Montee Ball going to the Bengals at No. 21, but he's not in Mobile.

But one of Kiper's top five running backs, Oregon's Kenjon Barner, is playing for the North. If you're looking for interior offensive players, which the Bengals probably aren't, and for linebackers, which they probably are, there are a bunch from Kiper's top five position lists.

There is Stanford outside linebacker Chase Thomas, Southern Mississippi outside linebacker Jamie Collins and Florida inside linebacker Jon Bostic playing for the South as well Rutgers outside linebacker Khaseem Greene and North Carolina inside linebacker Kevin Reddick playing for the North.

One of the best players in Mobile could be USC center Khaled Holmes and he's on the North with Kent State guard Brian Winters, another Kiper Top 5 along with Kentucky guard Larry Warford and Cornell guard J.C. Tretter for the South. Tennessee guard Dallas Thomas is also playing for the South and is listed as a tackle.

There are also some top five DBs besides Vaccaro: Fresno State safety Phillip Thomas and Utah State cornerback Will Davis are North teammates and South Carolina safety D.J. Swearinger and cornerback Johnthan Banks of Mississippi State are playing for the South.

Another top five player is University of Cincinnati tight end Travis Kelce playing for the North.

With backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski a free agent, the Bengals also may be in the market to develop a young one and three of Kiper's top five quarterbacks are going to be in the house. Syracuse's Ryan Nassib and North Carolina State's Mike Glennon are pitching for the North, and Tyler Wilson of Arkansas is lining up for the South.    

For the coaches, they start putting a name with a face next week. Three years ago in Mobile the scouts liked another defensive tackle from Georgia, this one by the name of Geno Atkins. A little short at 6-1, but a very intriguing guy with a high motor.

"I knew his position coach down there; he was with him all week," Zimmer says. "I had a pretty good idea after talking to a guy that coached him for four practices."

The Bengals hope to use that mixture of coaching and scouting savvy to mine another Pro Bowler from the ranks. The process hinges on the scouts and coaches each doing their research and coming to a consensus.

The prospects' conveyor belt has begun. Next month it's the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, to be followed by March's campus workouts. Then in the weeks before the draft come the physical rechecks and visits to the teams' facilities from the top 30 players or so.

"The position coaches really grind on these guys and we rank them the way we see them," Zimmer says. "We sit around the table and watch them. Once we do that, I like to go back and look at the practices. I think you can see more than you might in a game."

A Senior Bowl practice is a combination job fair/scouting session because it's the first offseason haunt for the coaches. Officials have spent years trying to get them off the field and succeeded recently by switching most of the practices to Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The fence to the field is locked, so a lot of the coaches have retreated to the stands.

But when the kickers start kicking and the returners start catching, special teams coach Darrin Simmons finds a spot along the fence. It was during one of these weeks a few years ago that Simmons noted a returner that struggled catching kicks and the gentleman is a free agent as we speak.

"You can tell looking at the body language, not if they catch it, but how they catch it," Simmons says. "Sometimes I watch from the stands, but I like being on the field. I'm down on the field at the combine and it's a big help."

Mobile empties out Wednesday night after the final heavy day of practices, but Simmons is going to see plenty of the game. Once he gets the Senior Bowl tape he'll grade each guy that plays on special teams and break them down by position.

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