RELATED: 2008 Scouting Combine Index* * *
Updated: 6:50 p.m.
INDIANAPOLIS - Marvin Lewis had no grand pronouncements Friday like he usually does during his annual confab with the Cincinnati media here at the NFL scouting combine.
He didn't bite on the hot seat question like he did last year. He bit off all Chad Johnson questions, although he did give Johnson the Kobe Bryant Challenge. He bit his tongue on the hints of a 4-3 or 3-4 defense.
But Lewis did all allow that his club has committed to Stacy Andrews as a starter, running back Rudi Johnson has vowed to rediscover the body that made him a Pro Bowler, and there will be turnover on defense.
But he also said it's not a given Smith is going to leave via free agency because the club didn't put the franchise tag on him for the second straight year. Yet he put Smith in the same category as free safety Madieu Williams and linebacker Landon Johnson as players that the Bengals plan to negotiate with once they find their value when the market opens a week from Friday.
"I think we're in the realm of where the compensation should be. We're not going to overdo it," Lewis said. "That could be a case where they need to go out there and see what the market is for their services."
Lewis also wouldn't equate Smith on the same level as left guard Eric Steinbach - a player the Bengals know they are going to lose.
"I don't think so, but we'll see," Lewis said. "Justin has ties to Cincinnati. Eric is a single guy. Eric is a different person. They're friends, but they're a little different personality-wise. ... He may have to go to the market to see where things are. If it's out of the range of where we feel it should be, then he may end up somewhere else. But if not, I think Justin will give us every opportunity to re-sign."
Lewis talked about the opportunity the Bengals have now given Andrews with the one-year, $7.5 million franchise player tag that has virtually kept him off the market. Lewis didn't say Friday if that meant guard or tackle, but he did say that is starting money.
"I think we've got to give him every opportunity to start and play," he said. "We've committed ourselves to him to be a starting football player. We're not going to give him a job, but he's done a pretty good job of earning a spot, or else we wouldn't have put him in the situation that he's in. I can't tell you what it's going to be. We're always looking over our shoulders. Now everybody is looking over their shoulders."
He has almost run the gamut on the line.
But Lewis did express disappointment that the Bengals haven't been able to reach a long-term deal with Andrews' agent, Rich Moran, in the wake of the 2006 long-term deals struck with the starting tackles, Anderson and Levi Jones.
"It's been an ongoing thing for a couple of years now," Lewis said. "It takes both parties to come together. I think we've been more than fair. I feel good about that. A couple of years ago when we were facing that with Levi, Willie and so forth, these guys got signed. It's up to the player, too, to say, 'OK, this is what I want to do.' ... (The numbers) aren't much different. To push forward, it should be done that way. I think it's really a maturation of the football team to have that. You can always sit around and possibly make a dollar more somewhere else. ... I'm disappointed with that process."
With the imminent release of Shaun Alexander, the release of DeShaun Foster and the concern surrounding Rudi Johnson, Lewis said the Bengals aren't in the market for a veteran running back and are counting on Johnson bouncing back from an injury-plagued season with the help of a regimen that will thicken him up like he played in 2003 and 2004.
"He looks back and sees he did some (dietary) things where he's thinned himself out," Lewis said. "He was a different player. As he's told me he wants to make sure he does a better job of making sure that yeah, it's great to do these things but, 'Do I still have the same strength and girth to take the NFL season and run through some guys?' He did those things. He wasn't small. He's just got to go back and make sure he's all put together the way that is best for him."
But Lewis said the club wants to see how Johnson responds physically before deciding for sure if it needs to find insurance for his bell cow spot, reiterating he thinks the enormously-proud Johnson will return as hungry as the guy that won the job in 2004.
Lewis did say the Bengals would consider drafting Arkansas running back Darren McFadden at No. 9, but also says it's so early that he has yet to see him on tape.
"I imagine we would if he's that good," Lewis said. "You're not going to back up good players. From the highlights, he's a good player. This is just the beginning of the process. There's the mental part of it, the personality, the work ethic. And these things are the next chapter from the information gathered on these guys in the fall. (McFadden) has been a talented guy. He's been a quarterback, a running back."
Lewis joked to check with him in a month to see who the top eight picks are so he can pick the Bengals choice at No. 9. He won't say if the Bengals are going to use their first-round pick for the fourth year in a row on defense, but he did warn against "overdrafting" a player because he fills a slot. He seemed to be talking about defensive end.
With Smith probably not back, the Bengals have to decide if they can fill his spot with Frostee Rucker and/or Jonathan Fanene. They have yet to decide to play a 3-4 or 4-3, but Smith is a rarity. Lewis says college defensive ends like the Bengals' Rashad Jeanty, Robert Geathers, Eric Henderson and David Pollack that have moved to outside linebacker in the NFL have become the norm. Geathers is back at left end after a month he had to stand up this past season, but would go back to outside backer in a 3-4.
Lewis isn't showing his hand on 4-3 or 3-4, but he said the club has to look at those 3-4 type backers, otherwise known as "tweeners," if for the very least to have a larger bracket of talent from which to choose.
"The way the college game is set up, the guys that are first-round pick defensive ends are playing on the hardwood and they're going into the NBA after their first year in college," Lewis said. "That's the nature of sports these days, so I think there are more guys that are tweeners in college that can play standing on their feet and be outside linebacker-type linebackers because they're in the 240 to 255-60 pound-range as opposed to 275-80 where the ends used to come from.
"It opens up your board. That's why we've had a position like that where you try and design a linebacker position where those guys become part of the thinking as you enter into the draft. If you feel like they can handle both those things with the athleticism and the mental part of it." **
- He didn't totally blow off the Chad Johnson issue. Remember when Bryant lobbied the Lakers for a trade in the offseason and now has them in the NBA elite?
"You should go look at it," said Lewis of an ESPN story on Bryant. "He found a way to lead his team to the top."
No, he has not yet talked to Johnson, Lewis said.
Lewis did talk about two versatile backers that can wreak havoc in the 3-4 if Pollack decides to play again and middle linebacker Ahmad Brooks can overcome a torn groin that kept him out of all but five quarters of play last season that put a serious crimp in his learning curve.
Lewis doubts the third-year Brooks has played 200 NFL snaps, but he's encouraged by his ability to pick up the game, calling him "bright."
"I just want to make sure the switch is locked," he said.
Lewis did reveal Friday that the club sent Brooks home this week after he experienced pain. He said Brooks was put on the shelf for a week, but he's expected back next week.
"We wanted to make sure we're not overlooking something with the different movements," Lewis said. "I think there's always the thing with guys dealing with an injury and going through the rehab process, there's going to be some pain, just have to work through it. I felt really good where he was."
Lewis said he has a time frame on when he needs a decision from Pollack on whether he'll return from a broken neck. But he wants to keep it private.
No such luck for fourth-year center Eric Ghiaciuc. Lewis challenged him Friday to improve on the mental aspect.
"He's (adapted) to the physical part of the game well," Lewis said. "But I think in order for us to go back and be where we need to be, we still want Eric to continue to work as hard as he has every other offseason, and to take steps mentally to maximize his athleticism."
COACHSPEAK: Lewis had to smile as he walked out of the RCA Dome Friday morning. Instead of getting stopped by the media, son Marcus was intercepted by Tom James of the Terre Haute (Ind.) Tribune-Star for an interview in the wake of his decision to play linebacker at Indiana State.
Marcus Lewis has never hid his desire to follow his father into coaching and his college decision is no different. He's giving up lacrosse to enter ISU this fall with the chance to win a full scholarship next year under the school's new head coach. Trent Miles worked with Marvin Lewis on a long ago New Mexico staff.
Marcus Lewis, a 5-10, 210-pound senior at Indian Hill High School, is already planning to be a graduate assistant after his playing days. So he took the advantage of a snow day to attend his first combine.
"I was going to come last year," he said, citing school, "but I couldn't make it."
This time the weather cooperated.
Marcus said he often pores over his father's scouting reports and "if I wasn't here I'd be sitting on my butt back home watching it on TV. It's just fun for me to see all these great players."