Strong side

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Exhibit A for Andrew Billings: Geno Atkins, from the fourth round to four Pro Bowls.

Word is Andrew Billings is going to wear No. 75 for the Bengals, which is just about right, isn't it?

Before the Bengals took the Waco Weigh Station in the fourth round Saturday, he had already heard about two of their defensive tackles. Friday night's discussion in Texas about Pro Bowler Geno Atkins had helped ease his concerns about slipping to the fourth round and he was aware how well former Bengal Devon Still wore the number during his daughter's heroic conquest of cancer.

"I remember Devon Still because I noticed it was also my number and that was great to see," Billings said Wednesday. "I'm just anxious to get there and see how the Bengals work as a professional team. I'm just looking to do whatever they ask me."

You've heard about this kid already. How he's stronger than new rope, Prince George, Kate Upton and Justin Verlander combined, and not necessarily in that order. How he squatted 805 pounds, dead-lifted 705, and bench-pressed 500 as a high school senior to break a 22-year-old national record.

But that's not the first thing that Waco High School head football coach Marty Herbst remembers about him. He wasn't sneaking peeks in the weight room, but he was watching.

"It's more about his character. Strong character," Herbst said Wednesday from the Waco Field House. "I remember taking him once a week to read to kids at an elementary school. We still do stuff like that, but it takes a special kid to do something like that and Andrew was one of them. He was a unique. Never got in trouble. His teachers loved him."  

The Bengals begin to get a read on him Thursday with the rest of the rookies when they arrive at Paul Brown Stadium for the rookie minicamp set for a practice each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Billings, who was virtually unblockable one-on-one at Baylor, is a headliner with the other six draft picks. It's also the weekend the Bengals unveil their college free agent class. Since some of the CFAs inevitably fail the physical before camp or get cut at the end of camp, keep an eye on the tryout players that will be announced on Friday with the CFAs because some of them may leave with a contract.

Practices are closed, but the 311-pound Billings is going to be easy to spot to the media that hailed his selection as "a steal." At maybe 6-1, maybe not, he's not tall as far as NFL tackles go, which seems to be the leading reason why he was available with the 122nd pick. But he'll be wearing the number he wore in college and flexing the muscles that made him a high-school legend when he broke a 22-year-old national record as a senior at the Texas state powerlifting championships.

Cincinnati Bengals 2016 Draft Class

He knows of Atkins and Still and he'll be backing up Domata Peko and Pat Sims at nose tackle. But his favorite NFL player is Texans nose tackle Vince Wilfork, the five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle that spent most of his career in New England. Wilfork also wears 75, yet that is not why Billings wears it.

"It was given to me in high school. I wore 79 but they gave me 75 when I got to the varsity," Billings said. "I like the sound of it and the way it looks on me."

Wilfork's No. 75 has gummed up offenses in the middle with brute strength for 12 seasons. Or, since Billings was in fourth grade because he's been 21 for just two months.

 "I followed him for two reasons," Billings said. "Because he played my position. And two, I hope I'm not 340 pounds, but growing up I wanted to be like him. The way he comports himself. Yeah, I liked his leadership style."

Herbst's program encourages its players to pick up a second sport. If not track, then weightlifting. And Herbst figures since it was a competition, he believes Billings could have gone a little more than 805 pounds if he needed it for the win.

But those days are gone. The most he's squatting is 650 pounds and the most he's benching is 450.

"If you go too high, you can lose a little flexibility if you don't stretch right with it," Billings said.

He played primarily the offensive line for Herbst, piling up 266 pancake blocks, but he played both lines his senior year. It still wasn't enough for him to secure a scholarship to the Big 12 until around Christmas his senior year and that buffaloed Herbst as much as Billings not getting picked until Saturday.

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The Bengals think Billings can help their run defense right now.

"He was a three-year starter who was never on anybody's radar. Maybe it was the same thing that happened to him in the draft. He was short," Herbst said. "A lot of college coaches think you have to be a certain size to play defensive tackle . . .  There was no doubt that opposing coaches who watched film thought he was (worthy of a Big 12 scholarship). And the sportsmanship after the game."

On the Sunday morning after the draft, a Bengals scout sat in his office still shaking his head over how they got Billings in the fourth round. He turned to his TV, clicked to Billings' workout at the NFL scouting combine, and revealed him gliding through and over the bags that mapped out an agility drill.

He certainly didn't look like a two-down-run-player-only on that tape.

With the 122nd pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Bengals select Andrew Billings from Baylor

"You don't see too many 300-pounders run that fast," Herbst said. "And he's a good practice player."

Soon enough he'll be in the D-line's text group with Atkins, Peko, Sims, and maybe even Still because these guys compose probably the closest position on the team and they don't like to say good-bye.

Atkins is represented by the same agency that works for Billings and agent Bill Johnson was there Friday night after the third-round. Johnson, who works with Pat Dye, and everybody else were stunned Billings had yet to go. But he was able to tell him how Atkins had been looked down on by scouts because he was barely 6 foot and had now been to four Pro Bowls.   

"I can't wait to meet him," Peko said earlier this week. "With my personality and the way I was brought up here going into my 11th season, I'm going to do my best to show him the ropes and just show how we work. We've got a talented group here.  We've got some guys that work really hard here. Some of the best in the league on the defensive line. We'll see how he comes in and contributes to the team."

Peko, the de facto defensive captain, is going to do what he always does. Mentor.

 "I knew eventually they had to draft a D-lineman. Especially in my position," Peko said. "I'm 31 years old. Like I told the other guys. People will say what they say. 'Peko is getting older.' At the end of the day I feel pretty good. It's just motivation for me. For years people have been saying I'm getting old. I feel younger and younger every year.  I'm just trying to do what I can do to help other people and help this team."

Herbst says the Bengals are going to like he's in the group. This is what he remembers. After Billings left Waco for Baylor, Herbst called on him to mentor a guy coming up that the coach also ended up taking to schools to read to the kids.

"We wish we had him back," Herbst said.

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