NFL free agency may be around the corner, but it isn't going to crop up before or during the NFL Draft that begins Thursday night and ends Saturday afternoon.
In order for free agency to occur as soon as next week, federal court judge Susan Nelson would not only have to refuse the owners' request for a stay of the lockout Wednesday, but the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals would also have to deny them in the next few days. If both attempts failed, then the NFL would have to come up with rules governing the league year before it would venture into free agency.
According to national reports surfacing Tuesday, some agents are calling teams about signing free agents because Nelson has lifted the lockout and those on the players' side are suggesting teams are breaking the law by not allowing players to work out in the facility or attempting to sign free agents. But many teams, and the Bengals appear to be one of them, are taking the position that the lockout rules are in place until the flurry of legal motions have been ruled on and that free agency can't be pursued until rules are in place.
When it does get going, the Bengals' two top priorities are re-signing cornerback Johnathan Joseph and running back Cedric Benson. The rules are extremely important in Joseph's case because if 2010's system is used with no salary cap then he's a restricted free agent. If the 2009 rules are in place with a salary cap, then he's unrestricted.
No matter what, Benson is a free agent and the Bengals would dearly love to have back their bell cow of the last three seasons. If they could have signed him in March, it would have opened up their draft board a tad. But this isn't any other year and not only is Benson free, so is third-down back Brian Leonard if the 2010 rules are in place.
So much focus has been on the first two rounds and a quarterback that not much time has been spent dealing with how the Bengals are going to attack drafting potential replacements if they can't get Benson and Leonard back. If the Bengals choose to take a quarterback and a defensive player in the first two rounds, many draft experts believe they can get a back that can help them this year in the middle rounds.
"Because of the unusual number of quarterbacks and defensive linemen that look like they're going to go in the first round, there is going to be a good bargain for a back in the third or fourth round and maybe even lower," says Rob Rang, senior analyst for NFLdraftscout.com. "It's why Mark Ingram is slipping. If you can get one later, why invest in one in the first round?"
Ingram, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama, is usually the only first-round running back in most mock drafts. The concerns about his knee seem to be receding, but not the notion that good backs can come anywhere in the draft remains.
With all due respect to "The Brady Six," if you have to take a franchise quarterback early, you don't even have to take a franchise back. The NFL's leading rusher last season, Houston's Arian Foster, is an undrafted free agent. In fact, the second- and third-leading rushers, Kansas City's Jamaal Charles and Atlanta's Michael Turner, were third- and fifth-round picks, respectively.
Of last year's top 10 NFL rushers, four were first-rounders in Adrian Peterson, Steven Jackson, Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson. Two were second-rounders in Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice, and along with Charles and Turner, the Giants' Ahmad Bradshaw is a seventh-rounder.
"You can find them; it's a position that may be the most hidden," says Jerry Jones, publisher of the draft survey "The Drugstore List." "With the way they pass the ball in college now, a guy might not be able to show what he can do. And, he may have been sitting behind a featured guy until his last year and he only had one shot at it."
Just look at the Bengals' own history. Of their top rushers over the last generation, James Brooks came in a trade, Harold Green and Corey Dillon were second-rounders, Rudi Johnson was a fourth-rounder and Benson came off the street.
Which brings us to Bernard Scott, sixth round 2009. Hampered by some nicks, trying to grasp the mechanics of the passing game, and eclipsed by Leonard on third down, Scott's attempts dropped from 74 to 61 in 2010. Yet his 4.8 yards per carry were more than a yard better than Benson. The Bengals worry about Scott's durability at 5-10, 200 pounds, but if he and a rookie can each carry it 175 times, there are 350 carries if Benson isn't re-signed.
"That's why I really haven't put a running back with the Bengals," Rang says. "I think they're pretty good with Bernard Scott."
It just depends what the team wants and where it has the backs rated. Most mocks have Ingram and Mikel Leshoure of Illinois as the top two backs. The guys that start appearing in the middle rounds are backs like Kansas State's Daniel Thomas (6-0, 230), Oklahoma State's Kendall Hunter (5-7, 200), Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray (5-11, 213), and Nebraska's Roy Helu (5-11, 220).
Throw in the squatty, tough power runners like the Big East tandem of Syracuse's Delone Carter (5-8, 222) and Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis (5-6, 193), along with Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers (5-6, 195) and a team's individual taste for size and speed come into play.
With new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden talking about pounding the ball and long-time running backs coach Jim Anderson's penchant for the bigger, more physical backs, bigger may be better. But college production and durability are also keys.
Look at the size of the backs the Bengals draft. Scott goes 200 pounds. Kenny Irons, the 2007 second-rounder knocked out by injury, went 5-11, 205. Chris Perry went 6-0, 224 in the first round of 2004. Rudi Johnson showed up at about 220 in the '01 fourth round. In the fourth round of 2000, Curtis Keaton checked in at 5-10, 220.
"Thomas is an interesting guy. The knock on him is his speed, but he's got a wonderful vision because he played quarterback in high school and Juco, and some for them," Jones says. "A lot of these guys can do the whole works for you, and he's one of them. Murray is the most exciting guy. He's got an injury history, but he's the best pass receiver out of all of them. Quizzy Rodgers (three-year starter) is not a speed guy (4.64) and he's very short, but he's got remarkable burst."
The every-down backs are going to go early. Murray has the size, but he also played in a spread offense and took some direct snaps in the Wildcat. How pro ready is he? Rang and Jones says Cal's Shane Vereen (5-10, 210) can help someone this season (maybe a third-down back) as a guy that worked in multiple sets.
Jones also likes USC's Allen Bradford (5-10, 242) because of his size and yards per carry last season of 7.2 and Rang says he can help block. Even though LSU's Stevan Ridley (5-11, 225) is coming out early and has started just nine career games, Rang says he reminds him of another SEC runner that went the Bengals way.
"He's a grinder-type runner; a guy like Rudi Johnson that can really go north and south and get you tough yards," Rang says.
When it comes to a runing back, it simply comes down to what is a team's flavor de jour. And it doesn't seem to matter which round.
"This is one of the most underrated positions this year," Rang says. "There may not be a lot of big names, but there are a lot of bargains waiting out there later in the draft."