Updated: 3-20-09, 5:10 a.m.
Marvin Lewis returned from the University of Cincinnati's Pro Day Thursday convinced more than ever that he has his team on the right course for 2009.
During the drills, highlighted by Connor Barwin's blistering 40-yard dash somewhere between 4.4 and 4.5 seconds, Lewis said people from several NFL teams complimented him on the Bengals offseason so far.
"We upgraded personnel. I was told that by 10 different people today," Lewis said in a sitdown with Bengals.com before he leaves for the NFL meetings this weekend in Dana Point, Calif.
"I've felt that, but it's the first time I've been off campus," he said. "Laveranues was their big point, and Cedric (Benson), bringing him back. They didn't have to say that, but it's what I've seen as the vision for our team. I think it's been a plus. I think our quarterback is excited about it and that's important."
With the owners' meeting set near quarterback Carson Palmer's Los Angeles-area home, Lewis figures to meet with him some time next week on his turf in preparation for the March 30 start of offseason workouts at Paul Brown Stadium.
Lewis says Palmer has worked a little bit with some of the Bengals receivers on the coast and has been pleased with what he's seen from second-year players Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson. With former Bengal Glenn Holt signing in Minnesota this week, Lewis is encouraged by the turnover at receiver. He's also buoyed by the return of another second-year player, WILL linebacker Keith Rivers, who missed the last nine games with a broken jaw.
"We're better at receiver. We're better at linebacker than we were a year ago and we've got the draft upcoming," Lewis said. "The wideout group is significant because of the young players we brought in last year and have displaced a couple of guys. Trading Glenn Holt for a Jerome Simpson or Andre Caldwell, yeah, I think that's an upgrade."
If Lewis sounds optimistic after that estimated $15 million free-agency outlay two weeks ago, he is. Despite the loss of the club's most reliable receiver, uncertainty on the offensive line and at fullback, and the fact he also sees "probably" signing two more players that will compete to start before the April 25-26 draft, he says this team is more defined than his first three teams that went 27-21 and won an AFC North title.
"There were a lot more questions on this team in '03, '04, '05 than there are now. I think a lot more," Lewis said. "Just in every way. A lot fewer questions. Because of the type of player, and it's a much younger team, a more emerging team, which is a better team. A team that fought through some hard times. It's not had somebody blowing smoke up their butt all the time telling them how good they are.
"They've had the opposite now. Unfortunately, we had guys who listened to it and it's not true. They hadn't done anything. Now they've been questioned and that riles them up and it challenges them that they've been questioned. They're challenged and they're hungry."
But even though the Bengals signed one safety already this offseason in Chris Crocker, Lewis would also love to add Roy Williams. Williams, the five-time Cowboys Pro Bowler, had an impressive workout at PBS Thursday after dining with his old defensive coordinator Wednesday night. Under Mike Zimmer in Dallas, Williams went to four of those Pro Bowls and Zimmer said he saw a lot of the same skills.
Although Lewis says the club doesn't have much salary cap room because of the huge payout due the sixth pick in the draft and because Rivers didn't hit his one-time play-time incentive because of the broken jaw (believed to be about a $3 million count in '09), he indicated that he thought Williams could still be a fit.
It doesnt look like it's going to be a quick signing, though. Agent Jordan Woy indicated Thursday that Williams wanted to see if the fit was right and while it seemed to be, he also could be headed to two other visits.
Williams also knows Bengals tight ends coach Jon Hayes from their days at Oklahoma and got a surprise when eight-year-old Jackson Hayes showed up Thursday morning to cheer him on looking much taller than the baby Williams knew back in Norman.
"He's a great football player and he's a wonderful guy," Lewis said of Williams. "I'm glad we got to know him and he got to know us. He'd be a good asset for us. You can never have too many players and this guy has been an outstanding player. He makes plays that win games."
Zimmer said Williams's technique looked raw early in the workout but he got better as the practice went. He said the forearm Williams broke twice last year looked strong and he looked athletic.
"He was (a two-way safety) for me," said Zimmer about Williams' ability to cover as well as play one of the NFL's most fearsome run defense at his position.
Zimmer also said he's not going to use a rotation if two guys prove they're the best.
"I wouldn't think you bring in a guy like that to be in a rotation," Zimmer said. "I'm not one to rotate guys just to appease somebody. That doesn't sound too smart. If he's the best guy, he plays."
As for the status of two players on the block, one reportedly (left tackle Levi Jones) and one supposedly (wide receiver Chad Ocho Cinco), Lewis indicated he expects Ocho Cinco to be with the team and he wouldn't comment on a published report that the Bengals are shopping Jones.
He did say that Jones is the left tackle and he expects him to be healthy enough to play after battling injuries all of last year and missing the last six games with back and hamstring problems.
Lewis also offered praise for a guy that he has clashed with publicly at times.
"He's had some injuries. He overcame injuries," Lewis said. "He fights his butt off. I love his temperament and how he goes about it. He's a great pro for us, the way he approaches the game and the way he approaches Sunday.
"He's here right now with the contract. He should be ready to play. He missed most of last season so he would be ready to play and did some things in the offseason to prepare himself to be ready to play this season. Levi is here. Levi is the left tackle."
Lewis also said that he expects Ocho Cinco to be with the team despite a hot stove full of reports the Bengals are going to trade him.
Although The Ocho said late in January that he would report whenever the Bengals wanted him, Lewis wouldn't speculate if he'll be here March 30. But after Ocho Cinco failed to engineer a trade by missing all of last year's voluntary work in bombastic fashion, Lewis has noticed the silence.
"Chad's been taking care of Chad, which is a good thing," he said of The Ocho's placid offseason. "Chad is disappointed with his season a year ago and there are a lot of reasons that led to that. He wants to do everything in his power to rectify it. One of the steps in his power, wherever it is for him (to train), is to get in the best shape he can be in for this upcoming season.
"He had to overcome a lot of things last year. His injuries and our offense. Both sides have to do a better job."
Lewis objects to the characterization that the offensive line is uncertain despite right tackle Stacy Andrews' deal in Philadelphia, the Jones trade report, and the lack of a center that has an NFL snap.
He refused to speculate if Andrew Whitworth would move from left guard to left tackle because he says Jones is here now and is the left tackle. He also said that left tackle Anthony Collins could move to right tackle "if we train him," and that he's in the mix with veteran backup Scott Kooistra.
Lewis is also encouraged by two young centers that missed last season with injuries in 2007, seventh-round draft pick Dan Santucci and waiver-wire pickup Kyle Cook.
"We drafted a tackle a year ago if we didn't have Stacy," Lewis said of Collins. "There's going to be somebody somewhere that doesn't have any experience. Dan Santucci and Kyle Cook have had two years in the building. That doesn't mean they don't have experience. They've been here for two years. At some point you have to let some guys play. That's the great thing about the word 'experience.' You don't get it until you play."
Lewis said he's comfortable with the ability of Santucci and Cook to make calls and recalled that the Colts once signed Santucci away from their practice squad before the Bengals got him back.
"Indy felt good enough about him that they took him," Lewis said. "Obviously some people have regard for the kid."
In talking about acquiring two more starting-caliber veterans, Lewis wouldn't be specific, but one position figures to be fullback, and, possibly, a bridge at center or right tackle. If Williams signs, that could negate one or the other.
"We've got irons in the fire," he said. "We'll keep up with it and see what comes to fruition first."
Jones' fate would no doubt be sealed with the first-round tackle pick. But a trade or release certainly could come before then even if it is looking more and more like the Bengals have no shot at the top two left tackles. Whitworth started 10 games at left tackle in 2006.
All Lewis would say is the team is not looking at position at No. 6.
"The first thing," he said, "is to get a guy you know is going to play for the next three or four years."