Up front about needs

Posted: 5:05 a.m.

With Marvin Lewis stressing running the ball on offense and rushing the passer on defense, the Bengals are looking for a few good linemen on both sides of the ball, as well as scouring the ranks of running backs and tight ends in the draft and free agency.

"We know we have to run the football more productively to be a better football team and we want to have those pieces in place in order to do that," Lewis said in anticipation of next week's NFL scouting combine and the start of free agency Feb. 29. "And that's twofold. That's the running back position and our front guys. We'll address that."

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Lewis

The Bengals finished in the bottom quartile of the NFL in both rushing and sacks. With a new defensive coordinator in Mike Zimmer and linebackers coach in Jeff FitzGerald, Lewis said finding pass rushers is an emphasis.

"That has to be a priority. You have to be able to affect the game by knocking around the quarterback and pressuring the football," Lewis said. "We've addressed the coverage part and we'll continue to develop young guys there, but we've got to be effective in the other parts of the game."

That leads to the two biggest questions in free agency with right end Justin Smith and right tackle Stacy Andrews. Lewis said the Bengals have had talks with most of their potential free agents, but that there hasn't been progress with some. Smith appears to fall into that category.

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Smith

Smith had just two sacks after averaging nearly seven in his first six years and agent Jim Steiner said Wednesday that his anticipation is that the Bengals won't put the franchise tag on him for the second straight year.

"We're preparing to go into the market and we would hope that the Bengals would be in the mix," Steiner said.

With Smith in the $20 million or so upfront category, that's doubtful. Lewis said the Bengals plan to use the franchise tag if they can't get a long-term deal with a player he wouldn't name. If it's not Smith, the next two candidates appear to be Andrews and free safety Madieu Williams.

Williams doesn't play up front, but his number would only be $4.4 million, the average of the top five safety salaries. Andrews would be $7.5 million, a huge number for a guy with only 11 NFL starts at tackle and a guy that may be backing up if Willie Anderson, as expected, comes back healthy.

But on Wednesday, Lewis had high praise for Andrews and said the Bengals are "conscience" of the perennial Pro Bowler Anderson's age and recent spate of injuries.

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Anderson

"He gave you hope at the end of the year that he can return physically," said Lewis of Anderson, who missed eight games with a knee bruise. "No question Stacy is a very important part of our football team. Every time we put Stacy at a slot, we watch him grow. Whether it is left guard, whether it is right guard, whether it is right tackle. Every time that he has had legitimate time, you've seen a guy ascend very quickly. Very coachable. Very willing to learn. Very good studier. He's what you want."

One thing about that one-time $7.5 million hit is that the Bengals could probably still keep Anderson and his big number. The upside is that Andrews can play a lot of different spots in a pinch.

While Lewis is hopeful Anderson can return off injury, he puts running back Rudi Johnson in the same category after Johnson missed his first games since becoming the starter in 2004 with a hamstring injury. Even before the injury, Johnson's yards per carry have dipped since 2006 to 3.5 yards.

"Because of injury at our running back position, we will take a deep, hard look at that," Lewis said. "I think we're confident that Rudi J. will be energized and excited and slam the ball against the wall like he did against Tennessee (after a touchdown). He's a prideful young man and we're excited he'll get back and do that. Hopefully we'll have the services of Chris Perry. I think we're unsure about Kenny Irons right now."

Irons, the second-round pick last year, tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in preseason and may not be ready right away. Perry didn't play at all last year coming off a dislocated ankle so Lewis indicated the Bengals are looking for some stable depth to go along with Kenny Watson in the effort to find a healthy bell cow back.

But protecting quarterback Carson Palmer in the sack-happy AFC North remains a priority and is reflected in the club's new draft strategy for tight ends. After barely missing tight ends they have targeted in the draft (Jason Witten, Anthony Fasano), Lewis said the Bengals have to forget finding that rare college prospect that can both catch and block.

"I think we're going to have to take an athletic guy that grows up and becomes a big, strong guy because unless you don't get that (all-around) guy in the first round, he probably doesn't exist," Lewis said. "It's got to be just like every other spot (and develop him). Look at a guy that can run and catch and that we can develop into a good blocker at the point of attack.

"It's such an important part of the position in our division. Either having to block a 3-4 linebacker and or defensive end in a 4-3, it's big for us. We play three teams in our division that guys get a couple of multiple looks. In order to win six games in our division, we know right out of the block this guy has to be pretty well stacked together. But in order to have another weapon, particularly on early downs, you have to have the other, lesser physical player right now and let's go get a guy that is a better receiver and see how that works."

Of course, it's a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg because the Bengals use so may three-receiver sets that they don't look to throw to the tight end very much. But Lewis said if they found that receiver type to go along with the blocking that Reggie Kelly, Daniel Coats and Nate Lawrie give them, they could use more regular sets of two backs and one or two tight ends.

One guy the Bengals won't be looking to get in the draft or free agency is that fourth quarterback. Lewis said signing Jordan Palmer last month isn't a ploy to make his big brother happy after he left displeased following the season. In fact, Lewis said, it's an idea that Carson Palmer didn't like last year when Jordan Palmer came out of Texas-El Paso.

But after the Redskins took Jordan in the sixth round, they cut him, and despite several tryouts elsewhere he didn't hook on. Plus, backup Ryan Fitzpatrick's status is a bit uncertain as a restricted free agent.

"Things have worked out differently now," Lewis said. "(Jordan) is excited about an opportunity. It's an easy thing for the guy to come in here. I think he's going to be pretty comfortable. He's going to get right to football. He probably knows where he'll stay at when he starts the offseason. There are some things here that give him the chance (to get acclimated). All he wanted was a chance and an opportunity and I think we'll provide that."

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