Updated: 4-28-12, 1:40 a.m.
After finishing up the first three rounds of the NFL Draft in the wee hours of Friday night, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis celebrated the club's five selections as a physical answer in the NFL's most physical division.
"In today's three picks, we got bigger and stronger; that was big," said Lewis, seeking his first playoff win in his 10th season. "What we've done thus far in this draft has been very helpful, as far as playing the physical football we want to play against the people we compete with week-in and week-out. In order to have an opportunity to play further and further and win playoff games, we've got to become a more physical football team."
Cincinnati's two third-round picks typify the power when the Bengals opted for physical Rutgers wide receiver Mohamed Sanu with the 83rd pick and then grabbed their second defensive tackle in as many rounds with Clemson's Brandon Thompson arriving with the 93rd selection picked up Thursday night in a first-round trade with New England.
Throw in the first-round selections of the nation's hardest-hitting cornerback in Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick and of one of the draft's top-rated guards in Wisconsin's Kevin Zeitler, plus Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still, a Penn State defensive tackle, and it's one of those drafts that fans of the trenches have always wanted.
"We've added five players thus far that are extremely physical and have been productive on their campuses," said Lewis, with five picks left Sunday. "And we have a chance to continue to add to that again tomorrow."
The Bengals also cleaned up with character in the third round with Sanu, a labor relations major, and Thompson, one of the strongest men in the draft and a staple of the Clemson weight room who repped 225 pounds 35 times in one of the most dominating performances of last February's NFL Scouting Combine.
"How about a team that never gets any love, the Cincinnati Bengals?" chortled NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly as the network signed off at midnight. "Everyone picked right where they should have been picked."
Mike Mayock, Casserly's partner on NFL Network, mentioned the Bengals first of the AFC teams that helped themselves the most in the first three rounds and highlighted them for getting big-time value with Zeitler, Still and Thompson. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports gave them As or Bs on four of the five picks.
The fact that the Bengals eschewed such running backs as Utah State's Robert Turbin at the bottom of the third would indicate they didn't think he would provide enough of an upgrade to replace one of the three regular backs they have.
The story of the day, of course, was Sanu, pranked badly Thursday night when the Bengals were on the clock at No. 27. Someone identifying themselves from the Bengals said Cincinnati was picking him when the team was actually talking to Zeitler.
Even though they weren't involved, the Bengals reached out to Sanu's agent Friday morning with both club vice president Troy Blackburn and director of player personnel Duke Tobin calling Mike McCartney. They were told it was a Rutgers student. Lewis also phoned to tell Sanu to hang in there.
"I think he had turned his phone off, but I got to speak to his agent," Lewis said, "But I left a message (with Sanu). But I think a couple other people reached out to them, too. We talked to the agent and he was OK. It's an unfortunate situation. I think the guy that played the prank on him really thought it was funny ... I'm glad it worked out that way. It was a fun phone call to call him."
Sanu was just relieved.
"I'm hysterically laughing about that now," said Sanu, when asked if he could laugh about it now. "It was a terrible experience. I wouldn't wish it upon anyone. I'm just thankful that God gave me the blessing to be picked by the Bengals, and I'm very thankful to be a Bengal."
The Bengals went through with it because they need a No. 2 receiver opposite Pro Bowl rookie A.J. Green and they see the 6-2, 215-pound Sanu as a bigger, faster version of T.J. Houshmandzadeh. He's got a knack for the clutch catch with a total of 65 of his 115 catches this season going for first downs.
"He was recruited as a safety there, so he's got that mentality; he blocks," said Bengals receivers coach James Urban. "He played primarily inside this year for them, mostly because that was where they wanted to get him the ball the most. He played Wildcat; they lined him up in the backfield and arc-released him out and have him run routes from in the backfield. He's very versatile that way. He played outside earlier in his career as well. They moved him inside this year primarily because that was their primary receiver for most of their pass routes. He's had several different quarterbacks in the last few years. I think they've had kind of a turnover at quarterback and he's still had that production."
The knock on Sanu is his 4.55 seconds in the 40-yard dash, but the Bengals think his work ethic and versatility trumps all that. He arrived from New Brunswick, N.J. as one of the nation's top-rated high school safeties and threw four touchdown passes as a quarterback one year before switching to wide receiver and catching a Big East career-record 210 balls.
"He's very crafty. He had a great knack for sticking his foot in the ground and using his big body to get in between the defender and the ball," Urban said. "He uses his body very well. He has a great natural instinct in zone, a good feel for where the zones are and how to stick and slide in zone. He has great hands too. So you put those things together, you get 115 catches."
The number is three redshirt quarterbacks, but yet Sanu kept making plays. Urban says he's a 1-receiver and off the charts when it comes to character. Sanu's family is from Sierra Leone in Africa, where his mother is running for parliament.
"I attack the ball, run very good routes, am quick and sudden and have the natural ability to find the ball when it comes my way," Sanu said. "I would say I have some speed to go on deep routes. I'll try to show that this year and we'll see how it turns out."
He can't wait to team up with Green.
"I'm very excited. I'll learn as much as I can from him because he's been there for a year. I'll learn a lot from everyone in the meeting room," Sanu said. "I'll learn a lot from Coach Urban and I'll make sure I embrace my teammates and am ready to go."
When the Bengals went for the 6-2, 314-pound Thompson, it was purely dictated by the board, where most people had Thompson going in the second round. When he was still there with three picks left in the third round, it was a no-brainer even though the Bengals had picked Still the round before. With Jon Fanene and Frostee Rucker gone in free agency and the success of the eight-man rotation up front in 2011 still fresh in their minds, it was an easier pick to make.
"The wave affect has served us well and keeps our guys fresh and really helps us to break the will of people," said defensive line coach Jay Hayes. "Hopefully getting in the two guys we got today will add to that. When you're talking about Brandon Thompson, you're talking about a guy that did (35) benches at the combine. This is a strong, strong guy and has a good understanding of playing the run game and can push the pocket. He'll add to the room and is the type of guy that is very bright and will be able to catch on to what we're doing."
With Still set to back up starting tackles Domata Peko and Geno Atkins, Thompson already finds himself in a roster battle with Pat Sims, a run-stopper working on a one-year deal, if the Bengals decide to keep only four tackles and four ends. But they could go with nine linemen and deactivate one on Game Day.
Thompson is a horse in the weight room as the Bengals took another shot across the bow in the AFC trench wars. Thompson has a 450-pound bench press, a 615-pound squat and a 370-pound power clean.