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Tackling the formula


The Bengals have had a nice run of tackles under Paul Alexander (above), Duke Tobin, and Mike Brown.

INDIANAPOLIS _ Paul Alexander convened his 21st NFL scouting combine as the Bengals offensive line coach Wednesday with the morning weigh-in and, my, how things have changed.

"There aren't as many dumpy looking guys here. There's no dumpy-looking guys," said Alexander of the difference between now and '95. "There are many more 300-pounders. Many more big, tall athletic looking guys. No fat guys."

The offensive line is always the lead topic at the combine because they're the first guys that hit the field later in the week. The CW is that it might be time for the Bengals to pluck another first-round tackle out that plentiful lot with both starters in the last year of their deals.  And with Alexander, Bengals president Mike Brown, and director of player personnel Duke Tobin, that has meant a starter for at least half a decade.

Since the 1996 drafting of Willie Anderson, the best right tackle in club history, the Bengals have had basically two starting right tackles. And two left tackles since the 2002 selection of Levi Jones. All of them came in the first and second rounds.

But not so fast in 2015.

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is still a Pro Bowler in reality if not name.  Right tackle Andre Smith, the sixth pick in the 2009 draft, just turned only 28.

And, with Whitworth turning 34 late this season, it would appear that the left tackle of their future isn't here this week.

At least that's the buzz in the combine environs and confirmed by such draft titans as ESPN's Bill Polian, a new Pro Football Hall-of-Famer elected for building AFC powers in Buffalo and Indianapolis.

"No, there isn't that kind of athletic guy," said Polian, when asked if there is "a dancing bear," pass protector in this draft.

Indeed, Polian believes the Bengals' top priority should be a pass rusher and he thinks they can get one at No 21.

Rob Rang of CBS Sports would tend to agree there isn't a pure left tackle and there is no consensus top ten tackle in the first 10 picks, where, by the way, Anderson, Jones and Smith were all selected. But, he says, there are plenty of guys that can move from left tackle to right tackle and guard.  He still thinks the Bengals can get a guy at 21 that fits their style.

It sounds like a "Grizzly Bear Draft."

"A lot of maulers," Rang said.

 "When you look at who Cincinnati has won with as far as offensive tackles, they've generally done it with big guys. This is not a draft with a lot of big guys. Not big guys who can move," Rang said. "I think it's relatively easy this year to identify some of the players who have fit what Cincinnati has historically done.

"Because Cincinnati plays the power style they do, I don't think they necessarily need one of those really light-footed, almost tight ends at left tackle. You're looking more for those big strong guys that can be powerful in the running game. They should be able to find a player that fits in with what they're looking for. They don't necessarily need a top ten pick to find him."

But the Bengals' formula for drafting a tackle is pretty unforgiving.

"He has to have the right size, arm length, strength, quickness, the athleticism, flexibility, intelligence and competitiveness," Alexander said. "In my mind, the guy has to at least be adequate in every area. If he fails in one, it's like the big-league baseball   player who can't hit the curve ball. You can't make it. If he hasn't got the flexibility or if he's too slow, it doesn't matter how good he is in the other traits. They're called Achilles' heel traits."

 Alexander transfers his Senior Bowl grading system to the combine. Five is a Pro Bowler. Four is an NFL starter.  Three is an NFL backup.  Two is a player that won't make it to the regular season after training camp. One is a reject. After grading the 53 linemen this week, he'll add them up and it's doubtful they'll reach his highest-graded players, such as Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones, and Orlando Pace.

But Rang thinks guys like Miami's Ereck Flowers (6-5, 324 pounds), Penn State's Donovan Smith (6-6, 341), and LSU's La'el Collins (6-5, 308) can fit even though they are college left tackles that figure to move inside or to the other side. He could see Flowers landing with the Bengals and, take a listen. At the 2006 combine, Rang thought little-known cornerback Johnathan Joseph would be an option for the Bengals at No. 24 and two months later he nailed it.

He sees Flowers as a similarly underrated guy (he compares him to Whitworth) that is going to climb the boards and he thinks Collins could even stay on the left side in Cincinnati.

"The Bengals don't throw it 45 times a game," Rang said. "(Collins) could translate to left tackle in an NFL system where there is more focus on power than worried about the occasional sack he'll give up to a speed rusher….He's strong, tough, and plays the game like NFL offensive coaches like it."

That might not be enough to fly in the Bengals' difficult formula and if there's no consensus, they may not even be first-rounders on the Bengals' board come the end of April. Even the two tackles that are supposed to be gone by No. 21, Stanford's Andrus Peat and Iowa's Brandon Scherff, don't have the backing of everyone and some think they'd be better guards.

Polian suggests there are often good enough offensive linemen after the first round and one only has to look at the second round when they chose Whitworth with the 55th pick in the draft, the fifth tackle taken that year.

(Oh, where are you Marcus McNeil and Winston Justice?)

And it's hard to see the Bengals drafting a guy to sit. Alexander points out that since 1998 with Iowa guard Mike Goff, taken with the third-round pick from the Dan Wilkinson trade, every linemen taken in the first three round started virtually right away. (Goff, Jones, guard Eric Steinbach in 2003, Whitworth in 2006, Smith in 2009, and guard Kevin Zeitler in 2012.)

"A guy is a starter or he's not," Alexander said. "If he's a starter, he can only play one position at a time. A lot of times people say, he's better than this guy because he can play a couple of spots. No. A backup has to be able to play different spots. A starter has to play somewhere."

Remember, Whitworth was projected as right tackle/guard even though he played a college record 52 games at left tackle at LSU. Rang is confident the Bengals can figure out a position where they've found the formula.

"The Bengals do an extraordinary job taking not only the scouts' opinion, but also the opinion of Paul Alexander," Rang said. "I think he's one of the best in the business."

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