Jermaine Gresham poses with head coach Marvin Lewis following his introductory press conference. (Bengals photo)
Jermaine Gresham spent Thursday Night by himself watching the first round of the NFL Draft.
On Friday night he spent it with some of his new best friends in Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium, starting with a VIP Draft reception of sponsors and suite holders, and ending with equipment manager Jeff Brickner and assistant Adam Knollman. In between, he sat down with the Cincinnati media and then was quickly ushered into the draft room for a quick introduction before the second-round pick.
"To me, they're fans, and fans of me and we're a family," Gresham said as he recalled what some of them said. "'Happy to have you here.' 'Hope you can make a difference.' They hope I help the team out. There was one guy from Jersey that said he was an Oklahoma fan. I just want to help. I'm not trying to come in here and be a savior to the team. I just want to come in and do my part and hopefully win a bunch of games."
Gresham leads a draft class that has already won a bunch of games. Production on the big stage has been a dominant theme in head coach Marvin Lewis' eight drafts. After the dust cleared Thursday, Gresham was joined by two other players who had appeared in BCS title games, Florida defensive end Carlos Dunlap taken in the second round, and Texas wide receiver Jordan Shipley taken with Cincinnati's first third-round pick. Dunlap racked up 19.5 sacks in his last two seasons while Shipley was catching 205 balls as well as holding for the winning field goal in the Big 12 title game.
"That was a nerve-racking one, but I was holding for that one," he said.
Meanwhile, Wake Forest cornerback Brandon Ghee started 33 games in the last three years for a program he helped rebuild to the double-digit win level, an effort that literally got him on the big stage Friday night. He was good enough to get invited to New York for the draft and was relieved to be getting out of the green room on the third-to-last pick of the day.
"Nervous, anxious," he said of his experience. "But I'm glad I had my family with me – my parents and my brother. My brother (Patrick) was an undrafted free agent a few years ago, so we've been though it before. We try to stick together. Then when I got the call, I definitely got excited."
Lewis likes those guys used to the bright lights.
"You've got guys that were on great college football teams, so they're used to winning and that's a key element," Lewis said late Friday night after four hours of drafting. "They know what it takes to play in big games, how you have to prepare to get to that level of competition. When you look at Florida and Oklahoma and Texas, and what Wake Forest has done the last two or three years, those teams have 10-plus win seasons basically and three of them have played in national championship games over the last couple three seasons.
"I think that's what our guys from 'SC bring us. They carry themselves that way. Our guys from LSU. That's been big for us to put those guys in place like that from these programs used to winning and they help bring the other guys along."
Gresham, the rookie tight end the Bengals have never had, brought a bit of that big-time swagger to the news conference.
Q: You come off as a pretty confident guy, almost cocky. Where does that come from?
A: His mother, said Gresham, and "You have to believe in yourself. I'm not cocky, and I don't approach the game that way. You just have to believe in yourself."
What do you think Carson Palmer will like the most about you?
"I'm a big, moving target. I catch everything."
But Gresham may be one of the most unassuming first-round picks in recent memory. He reminds some a little bit of Brian Simmons, class of 1998, the way he quietly carries himself. He may have played big for a big program (he had two TDs in a title-game loss to Florida after which Gators coach Urban Meyer said he was the best player they played all year), but he prefers to keep it on the lowdown.
Check this out. He's already showing some smarts and resourcefulness.
His original flight out of Oklahoma City Friday morning was postponed because of weather and the next one had him making a tight connection in Detroit so he could get here for a 5:30 p.m. news conference. When he went to pick up something as he hurried off the plane, in his haste he left his suit and he couldn't get back into the area to get it.
No worries. He had an extra tie, powder blue, to go with a blue button-down shirt and khakis. When Brickner mentioned that the number the Bengals are thinking of giving him is 84, Gresham was hoping for his Oklahoma number: 18. But tight ends can't wear numbers in the teens.
"As long as they give me a jersey on game day," he said, "I'll be happy. It's my job to come up with my own identity anyway."
Big-time players are easy to spot. Just ask Dave Lapham, the long-time Bengals radio analyst who also calls Big 12 games. He saw Gresham play three times but it was what Sooners coach Bob Stoops said last year when Gresham missed the entire year with a knee surgery that stuck with him. Losing quarterback Sam Bradford hurt, Lapham recalled Stoops saying on Friday. But when the Sooners lost Gresham, they lost their identity, the coach said. Their identity turned out not to be Bradford's arm or tackle Trent Williams' power, but Gresham's versatility.
"He can set the edge and block the end," Lapham said, "or he can line up in the slot and beat you deep. The game is important to him. He's focused. Between your quarterback and receiver, trust has to be there. He'll be where he's supposed to be. Carson is going to love him. He's a hard worker. He catches the ball, he makes big plays."
If the main theme of this draft has been productive players for winning teams, then the subplot has been getting weapons for Palmer. Gresham is the tight end he's never had and Shipley may be the smart, reliable underneath receiver Palmer hasn't had since T.J. Houshmandzadeh left after the 2008 season.
"Cincinnati got a steal," Texas quarterback Colt McCoy told NFL Network.
"I've been watching Carson for a long time, and I feel like he is as good of a quarterback as there is out there," Shipley said in his conference call. "Jermaine is also an unbelievable player. I've played against him the last couple years at OU. So to get to go to work with a couple of the best at their positions is going to be a lot of fun, and I can't wait to get started."
Bengals receivers coach Mike Sheppard emphasized the club was trying to find guys that Palmer doesn't have to worry about where they're going to be when he throws it. Shipley certainly has that reputation and so does the 6-5, 261-pound Gresham, a guy that is simply big all over and not hard to find racing down the field.
While Brickner fitted him for a size 15 cleat, Gresham pronounced his feet "wide, very wide," and that's fitting because he's trying to fill some big shoes that haven't been filled since Tony McGee caught 55 balls for the Bengals at tight end 15 years ago.
"Whatever it takes to win," he said. "Set the edge, whatever. Chip the end. Scheme block down. Whatever you want, I'll give it to you. My identity is whatever the Bengals do. Whatever the scheme is, try to do it. I'm not a me person, I'm a team person."
Which is what guys from winning teams usually say.
"We've never changed how we try to go about thing," Lewis said. "To be successful in the NFL, you want to have successful people that come from successful programs."