Wrapup: Defense takes major step

Posted: 7:30 a.m.

Next to No. 1 pick Andre Smith, the biggest help for the rehabbing Bengals offense in this past weekend's draft might have been the additions in the other two phases.

With the selections of two big-time college difference makers in USC middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and University of Cincinnati punter Kevin Huber, the Bengals defense is poised to take another major step forward after last season's rise to respectability.

The moves are prime examples of how the Bengals try to adhere as much as they can to the grades on their draft boards rather than being lured totally by needs.

But no one had any qualms going for Maualuga in the second round when the Bengals passed up a center in Max Unger that may very well have been an Opening Day starter at a spot sorely aching with need. And when they took Huber in the fifth round, as well as Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson in the third round, they left by the side of the road some running backs that could have easily backed up Cedric Benson.

The Bengals did fill those spots with players that may or may not end up helping them right away with players taken later. They picked up Arkansas center Jonathan Luigs in the fourth round and a Division II back in Abilene Christian's Bernard Scott, which doesn't do much to clear up the depth chart at those spots.

Yet offensive line coach Paul Alexander said that Kyle Cook is the starting center heading into next month's voluntaries and while the club likes Luigs' brains and production at Arkansas, Alexander says the Bengals need him to get stronger.

"The good thing we did is we stuck with the board," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "We could have taken other positions, but there was a glaring difference in the quality of the player we picked over where we could have gone. That's hard to argue with. In the end, you make yourself a better team by getting better players."

They certainly upgraded with All-Americans Maualuga and Huber, and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and defensive line coach Jay Hayes are hoping they've uncovered a find in Johnson. Not that he's unknown, but his inconsistent intensity was such a turnoff that he fell out of the top 10 in about a four-month tumble.

But the 6-7, 265-pound Johnson has such athletic skills that when Zimmer huddled with area scout Bill Tobin watching tape, he found himself oohing and aahing with things he had never seen before. While Tobin compared Johnson's dimensions to past Pro Bowl sackers like Ted Hendricks and Richard Dent, Zimmer compared him to his own Pro Bowl outside rusher in Dallas, DeMarcus Ware.

"The kid from Georgia Tech gives us something special on defense and it's hard to argue with that," Bratkowski said.

Still, Bratkowski is pleased not only with Smith, but also with the selection of the best pass-catching tight end he's had in his nine seasons here in Missouri's Chase Coffman, taken with the 98th pick in the third round. With apologies to Matt Schobel, the last Bengals tight end taken as high as the third round in 2002, Coffman arrives with the most career catches and second-most career catches by a Division I tight end.

"He's a good, young, hard-nosed player," Bratkowski said. "He has to make that transition that most college tight ends are doing now in getting out of the spread offense into an NFL offense. He's an extremely hard-working dedicated competitive guy that should be able to make the transition. He's a nice addition. There are people that believe he has the best hands of anybody in the draft.

And Luigs has a durable college track record that hits the Bengals in a spot they need. "We got two guys on the offensive line, and we needed that. That's a plus," Bratkowski said.

Plus, they did get a fullback in the seventh round (BYU's Fui Vakapuna) that looks like a clone of the guy they couldn't sign away from the Vikings last month (Naufahu Tahi).

"It really hit and fell the right way, and I think things that we wanted to try to get done since we finished last season have been taken care of," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "We will still probably fiddle around with a few things over the next couple of weeks, and then we will get ready to take the roster to training camp."

Lewis stressed the same true-to-the-board elements in his draft wrapup at roughly 7:30 p.m., right after the Bengals made their last pick, Utah's Freddie Brown, a 6-4, 215-pound receiver Bratkowski likes because of the combination of size and his route running.

(No, he said, the only thing he has in common with T.J. Houshmandzadeh is he was taken in the seventh round.)

"I think it's been a good, positive couple of days for us, gaining guys that will come in here and have an opportunity to compete. I don't think they are going to be overwhelmed by the NFL at all," Lewis said. "They all have the athleticism and ability to play at this level and make us better. Things fell in place pretty well, and we will go forward now and coach them up, which is the biggest thing."

It looks like they'll have to really do that on the offensive side, where Bratkowski was probably thinking of guys like Cook and another center, Dan Santucci, as well as Smith.

"We've got some young guys that are really going to have to play for us, which includes a bunch of people from last year," Bratkowski said.

Lewis talked up his centers.

"I feel real good about the center, because we felt real good about our guys that are here in our program," he said. "I feel better about it now because we have another guy to compete with those guys. Competition makes you better. I think that we are real content with where things are. There's an opportunity for the guys that we have in-house. With the injuries, we were able to run a lot guys through here."

Never was the board so much in play when it came to the running backs. Between injuries and speed, there always seemed to be a player with a higher grade until Scott surfaced in the sixth round. And there will be those that suggest the Bengals never should have had him on the board.

After two years of straying from players with character issues, the Bengals opted for Scott despite five arrests and four colleges. But the Bengals were under the impression his legal problems were behind him and his lawyer confirmed Sunday night that four of the charges have been dismissed and the fifth is about to be expunged after probation terms are completed.

"He had some things in his past and bounced from school to school. I liken him to T.J. Houshmandzadeh a little bit," Lewis said. "I think at that point in the draft, it was worth the opportunity. He has kind of gotten his life back together, and he is ready to play football. Wherever this guy has been, he has succeeded and run for a lot of yardage. We had a lot of time talking with people around him the last couple of years, and we felt really good about him. There were a couple of other guys at Abilene, so we had people in there a couple times during this draft process and we got good feedback on him being a different person."

The Bengals certainly went after their statistical needs. Sacks, sacks allowed, and punting were all at or near the bottom of the NFL.

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