Updated: 7 p.m.
This time of year, when he sits down at the NFL Scouting Combine, Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is usually a bit grouchy. Either he's spent too much time stopping the run and not enough on rushing the passer, or he's happy with the pass rush but not pleased with the run defense.
So it should tell you just how good the Bengals defense is these days as he heads into his sixth season in Cincinnati coming off a third top 10 finish at No. 7 and a blistering second half of the season the Bengals allowed an average of 13 points per game and total of four touchdown passes.
"We're getting better. When I watch the tape we're doing a lot of good things," Zimmer said over the weekend in Indianapolis. "We play hard, we're disciplined. We're tough. We're getting better. Hopefully we can keep going in that direction. We've got a good nucleus of guys. Good guys in the room that know how we want it done. We're starting to get a little bit of depth. All those things are good."
And the Bengals could get even better in the April 25-27 draft, especially if they can get right tackle Andre Smith re-signed. Then with the 21st pick in the first round they would be staring at a glut of 4-3 defensive ends, and after the cornerbacks ran some brisk 40-yard dash times to end the Combine on Tuesday the Bengals could also be looking to stockpile there even after taking Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick at No. 17 last season.
That would fit right into Zimmer's philosophy of "rush players and cover players" are an NFL defense's most important positions and why it's doubtful the Bengals would nab a safety or linebacker at No. 21.
"I think there's a value on each position and sometimes the safety position may not be as important as other positions," Zimmer said. "If you can't have 11 of exactly what you want, you mix and match in certain ways. I don't have an issue with our safeties.
"There are certain positions that are valued more than safety a little bit. Unless he is a War Daddy Safety and unless he is Kenny Easley, Ronnie Lott or Darren Woodson their value may not be as much as a corner or pass rusher."
Until the cornerbacks ran Tuesday, there had been a sense there was only one first-rounder among them in the person of Kirkpatrick's former college teammate, Dee Milliner. But after Washington's Desmond Trufant and Florida State's Xavier Rhodes went in the 4.3 range, they probably ran themselves back into the first round.
And when North Carolina State's David Amerson put a 4.44 on top of solid field work, NFL Network's Mike Mayock began bandying him about as a late first-rounder.
People are really going to be looking hard now at the 6-2, 215-pound Rhodes, a guy that could translate into a Richard Sherman clone. At the very least a couple of corners could go before No. 21 and push some other players down.
The reported times are done electronically, which are notoriously slower than times taken on hand-held stopwatches. When the Bengals reconvene at Paul Brown Stadium this week, they'll go over their hand-held times and come up with their times for each 40.
Zimmer already knows he has a raft of cornerbacks on his own roster that he doesn't know much about, either.
And that includes Kirkpatrick, after he played just 43 snaps because of knee problems and a concussion. But Zimmer isn't ruling him out of anything.
Of his top three corners from last season, Terence Newman and Adam Jones are unsigned and Zimmer would love to have them back. But he's anxious to see Kirkpatrick, which won't happen until training camp because the second-year corner is coming off a procedure to correct the knee problems that sidelined him most of last season. He's expected to be fine for the first day of camp.
"I think he can play. I don't know where, when or how yet," Zimmer said last weekend during a break in the Combine. "We have two free agents … I'd like to have them back but that doesn't mean Kirkpatrick isn't better than all of them. He could be the guy that's playing."
Fifth-round pick Shaun Prater, who showed flashes that he could be a pretty good nickel corner, missed all last year when he injured his knee in that "Terrible Thursday" of training camp. Prater not only suffered a season-ending injury back on Aug. 2, but so did 2010 third-round pick Brandon Ghee when he shattered his wrist and changed the dynamics at cornerback.
"He did improve. He was having the best year that he had so we'll see where it goes from there," Zimmer said of Ghee. "He was having his best camp until he got hurt. We'll see."
(Also hurt on that Terrible Thursday? Running Bernard Scott broke his hand and missed three of the first four games.)
Zimmer is also upbeat about two other 2012 draft picks, defensive tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson, taken in the second and third rounds, respectively. Still wasn't active in the second half of the season after playing a decent amount in the first half and Thompson only played 23 snaps.
"Thompson is getting better, Still is a really good athlete and has a lot of ability," Zimmer said. "There are a few things he has to work on to be a big-time player but he has the ability to if he wants to be."
Still looks to have the versatility to move to end on early downs, but Zimmer says "he could but that's not where he's going to be. He should be a good three technique."
This is also going to be a different year for Zimmer just because of the presence of his son. Adam Zimmer just turned 29, but begins his eighth season coaching in the NFL as secondary coach Mark Carrier's assistant. He spent four seasons with Sean Payton's Saints and three years under Romeo Crennel in Kansas City as an assistant linebackers coach. The night the Saints knocked off the Colts to win the Super Bowl three years ago, the New Orleans backers praised Adam Zimmer for the tip sheet he compiled to defend quarterback Peyton Manning.
"He's been with a lot of good guys. He's very smart. I'll be working for him soon. I'm going to get all of it in I can. I'm going to make him work," Zimmer said. "We've talked about it before and he'd already made a commitment to Kansas City to go there. I wanted him to go out on his own. I really didn't want him to be labeled with me. Sometimes guys get labeled. 'They've got to go where their dad is all the time.'
"I wanted him to get under other people and the good thing is everybody told me that he was a good coach. I honestly didn't know because I'd never coached with him, so now I get to find out myself exactly what I think."
What Mike Zimmer thinks is Adam's first year in the league coaching defensive backs is going to help him with the bigger picture.
"I've talked to him for a few years about good secondary coaches being hard to find and I think it would be good for him to start learning more about DBs," Zimmer said. "It's kind of what I did a long, long time ago. I think good defensive backs coaches are hard to find. It's good for guys to learn other positions and see how everything fits together. … Hopefully with Adam learning from Mark and myself it will help him. If you're under good guys, then you learn well."
Zimmer appeared on NFL Network's NFL AM Tuesday morning from the Combine and said he didn't think Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's 4.8 40-yard dash or LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu's four lonely reps in the 225-pound bench press would hurt them.
Zimmer said Te'o's excellent instincts reminded him of one of his former players, Cowboys linebacker Dat Nguyen, and predicted a good career for him. The 56-year-old Zimmer admitted he could probably bench more than four, but said, "At the end of the day, nobody cares about how much you benched. Not on Sept. 19 or whatever (when the season starts)."