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Thirst for the first (round)

Posted Feb 13, 2013

The mock drafts are barreling out of the woodwork like a 6-5, 240 tweener who runs a 4.3 40 with a 30 bench, a 42 Wonderlic, and good hand/eye that makes him a better than even shot at going 1B.

The mock drafts are barreling out of the woodwork like a 6-5, 240 tweener who runs a 4.3 40 with a 30 bench, a 42 Wonderlic, and good hand/eye that makes him a better than even shot at going 1B.

But who's counting?

NFL.com has already checked in with Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te'o going to the Bengals at No. 21, but don't look for that to happen. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., thinks Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro should happen if he's available while Rob Rang of CBSSports.com goes with Georgia outside linebacker Alec Ogletree.

"Adding a safety has to be a priority for them," Kiper says and as for Ogletree, Rang writes, "Lengthy frame, athleticism and experience in coverage. Has the long arms scouts like from linebackers."

But if you go by Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis's previous 10 drafts, those probably aren't going to happen either. The Bengals drafts are steered by consensus with president Mike Brown running a draft room that is the bailiwick of the personnel department but also features key input from Lewis and his staff.

While the ESPN and CBS mocks hit two of Cincinnati's biggest needs, the Lewis Bengals haven't taken a safety in the first round and the one No. 1 outside backer they did take in the first round—a former Bengal in Keith Rivers—showed why it's hard to take a workmanlike but unspectacular player at a non-premium position in the first round.

Plus, most SAM backers the Bengals are seeking this offseason simply aren't on the field that much during a game. Maybe 40 percent of the time at the most. Maybe not enough to warrant a first-round pick. And if last year's stretch run is any indication, rookies Vontaze Burfict and Emmanuel Lamur go into the offseason as the leading candidates to take the bulk of the backer snaps.  

Kiper knows one thing the Bengals are going to do.

"It's a team that has always done a good job evaluating players from a talent standpoint; they know who has talent," Kiper said in his Wednesday conference call. "Marvin has been there a long time and he coaches these guys well. Some teams have shied away from a player here or there and maybe they've reached a bit, but at the end of the day, they've always been a team that has talent.

"Their trend (has been) to get guys that have high grades at one point, but because they didn't produce well or had off-the-field issues, whatever it may be, they take the talented guys that drop. It's kind of like the old Oakland Raider philosophy with Al Davis: Talent always wins out."

That might have been the case early on with off-field problems, but the Bengals haven’t drafted a perennial problem guy in the early rounds in years. For instance, right tackle Andre Smith, left end Carlos Dunlap and right end Michael Johnson were perceived as underachievers and dropped down the board, but the Bengals were able to either prove the draftnicks wrong or were able to get it out of guys that have proven to be extremely valuable players.

Judging by the last 10 drafts, the Bengals consider quarterback, cornerback, tackle and defensive end premium spots. They've taken a quarterback No. 1 overall in Carson Palmer, three first-round cornerbacks in Johnathan Joseph, Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick, a tackle in the top 10 in Andre Smith, and a defensive end projected to be a SAM backer in David Pollack.

(Nothing near an inside backer in the first round. The Bengals haven't done that since taking Takeo Spikes 13th in 1998 and there are those that believe Te'o doesn't match Spikes as a prospect at this point.)

The Bengals took a tight end with this pick three years ago in Jermaine Gresham, but that was out of sheer need. Now at No. 21 again and with a deep draft teeming with second- to fifth-round prospects at a slew of positions, the Bengals are faced with choosing between premium position and need in the first round.

"The only great players in the first round in this draft are offensive tackles," says one AFC scout. "But there are good players all the way down through this draft that are going to help you."

Just look at the players at premium positions in the Rang Mock right there after the Bengals take Ogletree: Alabama tackle D.J. Fluker, Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant and Texas rush end Alex Okafor. Even Kiper says that only one safety could go in the first round and "you get three in the second round."

Kiper and most everybody else projects three left tackles to go before the Bengals pick (Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel, Central Michigan's Eric Fisher, Oklahoma's Lane Johnson), but the Bengals don't need one with Pro Bowler Andrew Whitworth. Andre Smith is unsigned but, remember, they took Whitworth in the second round in 2006 and still extended the contract a few months later of incumbent left tackle Levi Jones.

Kiper loves Fluker, a right tackle type that he thinks some clubs might put at left, and Kiper projects him in the Nos. 15-25 range and says he can be a dominant run blocker.

Kiper says Syracuse's Justin Pugh has short arms, but is versatile enough to play guard and tackle. Tennessee's Dallas Thomas can also play both and Kiper, at the moment, sees those two as late in the first, early in the second.

The Bengals figure to have Michael Johnson one way or the other, through a long-term deal or the franchise tag, as next week's scouting combine looms with him as the top player on the NFL free-agent board.

But if a pass rusher is there, and Kiper says there are some good ones, it's a premium position the Bengals may not mind stacking. BYU's Ziggy Ansah has the Johnson-ish dimensions of 6-6, 270 pounds and Sam Montgomery is getting some play despite being on the other side of the LSU line from top 10 pick Barkevious Mingo.

"He doesn't have a great burst off the edge like a Mingo has or the great closing speed like Mingo has," Kiper said. "But he tests well, was more productive this year than Mingo. He could be late first or early second."

The ever astute Charles Davis of the NFL Network actually has Montgomery going to the Bengals at No. 21.

That other premium position? Cornerback? Don't the Bengals have enough, you say, even if they don't re-sign Nate Clements?

They figure to re-sign two other of their own free agents in Terence Newman and Adam Jones to go along with Leon Hall, but the Bengals still also have last year's first-round pick in Dre Kirkpatrick and fifth-round pick in Shaun Prather, as well as 2010 third-rounder Brandon Ghee.

But, no, you can never have too many corners. And there might be some there at No. 21, although the consensus ranges wildly from mid-first round to top of the second after top five pick Dee Milliner of Alabama.

But this is about where the Bengals pick their corners. Joseph was the 24th pick, Hall the 18th and Kirkpatrick the 17th. The Bengals would have to love the length of Florida State's 6-2, 215-pound Xavier Rhodes, the 6-0, 185-pound Trufant is rising coming off a big Senior Bowl, and Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks has been mocked between 13 and 28.

Another reason the Bengals may want to draft a corner instead of a safety with that first pick: While Vaccaro sounds like a solid player, he had just five interceptions in 51 career games and has a rep for missing tackles at the point of attack. So if he's not Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu, the Bengals could very well have a Pro Bowl safety sitting there in Hall if they ever decide to move him.

Even though BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a solid year as the bread-and-butter running back they needed, the Bengals figure to be looking for a speedy, change-of-pace back for The Law Firm that can go all the way with one touch.

But while Kiper's colleague at ESPN, Todd McShay, mocks Alabama running back Eddie Lacy to the Bengals in the first round, only one of the four NFL.com mocks has a back going in the first round and it is Lacy.

Taking a back that high isn't usually the Bengals way. With Lewis in the draft room, the Bengals have done it once in the first round, but they traded down two spots to take Michigan's Chris Perry at No. 26, the lowest first pick in the Lewis era. Paul and Mike Brown haven't been big proponents of first-round backs, either. The Bengals took Ohio State's Archie Griffin No. 24 in 1976, LSU's Charles Alexander No. 12 in 1979, and Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter quite famously No. 1 overall in 1995.

And Kiper made a big pitch Wednesday about how a back can be found anywhere in this draft. He just had to look back at last year "when nearly every round had a back that produced" in his rookie year. Kiper started with two of the last three picks in the first round—Doug Martin and David Wilson—and went to the second round with LaMichael James, the third with Ronnie Hillman and Bernard Pierce, the fourth with Robert Turbin, the fifth with Vick Ballard, and the sixth with Alfred Morris.

When it comes to speed backs, Kiper didn't get going until the third round and North Carolina's Gio Bernard, a dynamic guy he says can help the Bengals return punts.

"Andre Ellington out of Clemson is going to be one of the fastest running backs in this draft. Ray Graham out of Pitt is an interesting kid. You can get him in the third or fourth round, he can help you there," Kiper said. "Dennis Johnson out of Arkansas is another guy. A guy I think you look at is Miguel Maysonet of Stony Brook. I saw him against Army when he led Stony Brook to its first victory against an FBS  opponent … he's got a lot of ability.

"And a guy in the late rounds I think is George Winn out of Cincinnati. He's a very underrated overall running back. He's going to be one of those sixth-, seventh-round running backs that we talk about a year from now. How did he get there? How did he drop down that far?"

Just another reason why the Bengals have to decide how high they have to look for need.

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