The Cincinnati Bengals are once again on the prowl for top talent at the Senior Bowl.
As the team prepares for the 2014 NFL draft, the Bengals are in the midst of their first major step toward formulating a plan in each round.
Marvin Lewis and the Bengals are typically a fixture at the annual all-star game, as it is the coaching staff's first chance to get up close and personal with prospects at each position of need.
Practices are under way with the big game on horizon on Saturday, and the staff has been hard at work and doing its due diligence. The following slideshow will list positions and names to monitor as they fit needs for the Bengals and will ideally be on the board come draft day.
The Cincinnati Bengals are unlikely to retain backup swing tackle Anthony Collins, given his stellar performance last season as a starter in the wake of left guard Clint Boling's injury. Cincinnati will not have the cash to compete on the open market.
With that in mind, offensive line is a major priority for the Bengals, especially with a quarterback like Andy Dalton under center, who struggles when pressured consistently.
A player to groom as the eventual replacement for Andrew Whitworth is the idea this year, and that can happen at literally any round in the draft.
One name to watch this week is Ohio State tackle Jack Mewhort. CBS Sports' Rob Rang sang his praises after drills:
Mewhort utilizes every inch of his tall, stout frame (6-foot-6, 306 pounds) and large winspan (80 1/4") to engulf and control rushers. Based off tape and his performance in Mobile this week, Mewhort looks every bit the part of a future starting right tackle in the NFL.
Other names to watch include Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson, who can play any spot on the interior. With center a need, he may be a possibility for Cincinnati, but he will be gone in the first 50 picks, per Bleacher Report's Matt Miller:
Lot of great prospects on Texas A&M's depth chart, but keep an eye on Miss. State OG Gabe Jackson too. Top 50 player.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) November 9, 2013
While this is a small sampling of the overall talent in the offensive trenches in this year's draft, the week-long festivities may give the Bengals an underrated player to steal come draft day.
Perhaps the biggest name of all in the offensive trenches at this year's Senior Bowl is Nortre Dame's Zack Martin.
He has likely made himself a ton of cash via his brief but dominant performances. Let's allow experts like Miller and CBS Sports' Dane Brugler to do the talking:
Zack Martin is good, y'all. Fluid moving in his slide. Moves with hands loaded. Just a little short armed for conventional LT.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 22, 2014
Zack Martin lining up at OG in some drills today and performing well. He's the best player here IMO #SeniorBowl— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) January 21, 2014
It sounds as if Martin's best fit may be at guard, but as NFL.com points out, that is far from a bad thing:
Picking an offensive lineman is boring, but it may very well be the way the Cincinnati Bengals go in the first round this year. Left guard needs an upgrade, so Martin can start right away and potentially be groomed to take over at left tackle at some point.
The Cincinnati Bengals are sure to address the cornerback position at some point in the 2014 draft, if not multiple times.
It makes sense. Veterans Terence Newman, Leon Hall and Adam Jones are aging, and Dre Kirkpatrick has yet to show he can be a consistent starter.
One early candidate for Cincinnati is Oklahoma corner Aaron Colvin, who tore his ACL in practice at the bowl, per his agent Ken Sarnoff on Twitter:
@AColvin14 has torn his acl. Send prayers for this terrific young cb and even better person who will make his mark in the NFL.— Ken Sarnoff (@KenSarnoff) January 21, 2014
As NFL Network's Gil Brandt illustrates, Colvin was on his way to a high selection before the injury:
Thought Aaron Colvin had chance to go in 2nd round. Some team will take chance on him late, sit him for yr like #49ers did w Lattimore— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) January 22, 2014
Now, he is a realistic option for the Bengals in the late rounds. If he's selected, he can soak up knowledge from the veterans while he recovers.
Another major name to watch is Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who has possibly played his way into the first round:
Liked Stanley Jean-Baptiste's film quite a bit. Issue was how athletic/fluid he was. This week he's shown well. Rd 1 pick wouldn't surprise— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 22, 2014
Jean-Baptiste is a perfect fit with Cincinnati. Given his skills and stature at 6'3" and 220 pounds, he can be versatile and play both corner and safety.
Should the Cincinnati Bengals choose to not address the secondary early in the draft, the Senior Bowl does not lack for backup plans who will slip into the later rounds.
One such example is Pierre Desir out of Lindenwood, who weighs in at 6'2" and 206 pounds—a perfect mold for a lanky physical corner who can play Cincinnati's aggressive style.
The praise has come from all angles, including National Football Post's Dion Caputi:
Lindenwood CB Pierre Desir generated some good buzz today. He seems to be improving as the week goes on.— Dion Caputi (@nfldraftupdate) January 22, 2014
Desir is far from a big name, but he is quite the fall-back option for the Bengals, given that the team should not need instant production from a rookie corner in 2014.
Defensive line is not an immediate need, but a team as talented as the Cincinnati Bengals have the benefit of luxury picks thanks to strong performances in recent drafts.
Defensive tackle is fine with youngsters Devon Still and Brandon Thomson sure to stick around. Michael Johnson is likely on his way out via free agency, but the Bengals still have plenty of depth at end thanks to Robert Geathers, Carlos Dunlap, Margus Hunt and Wallace Gilberry.
But this is Cincinnati, where a deep rotation is the name of the game.
Names such as Stanford's Trent Murphy and BYU's Kyle Van Noy are worth monitoring, although they are likely high selections and may be better fits in different schemes.
One name to keep an eye on is Auburn's Dee Ford, who is suddenly a major prospect thanks to his performance thus far:
As far as rotational pass-rushers go, Ford fits right in as a player that the staff can mold. Should the Bengals for some reason choose to nab an interior player, Arizona State's Will Sutton or California's Deandre Coleman would be a surefire contributor down the line. They have explosive first steps that allow them to rush the passer effectively.
Cincinnati Bengals fans who are upset that defensive end Michael Johnson may be on his way out may see West Virginia's Will Clarke as an adequate replacement.
He has been a bit of a sleeper all season thanks to his raw overall game, but he is slowly making a name for himself at Senior Bowl practices:
WVU DE Will Clarke entered the week as my top defensive NFL prospect and he'll likely leave that way too. VG first step w/ that length— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) January 18, 2014
Clarke's story as a raw physical specimen in need of proper coaching should sound very familiar. At 6'7" and 273 pounds, he fits right in with the Bengals as a rotational pass-rusher. The guidance of the coaching staff turned a risky pick in Johnson into an every-down player who is worthy of the franchise tag, and the same thing could happen with Clarke.
The Bengals will likely add depth at some point, and Clarke's upside makes him an obvious target in the middle rounds.
Perhaps the hottest topic in the Queen City as of late has been the quarterback position.
One thing is for sure—the Cincinnati Bengals will not draft Andy Dalton's replacement in 2014. The Bengals simply pick too late in the first round to find a talent who can take over right away and be better than Dalton.
Not only that, he has one year left on his contract, and it makes little sense to not let him play it out on the hopes he can turn it around, especially under the guidance of new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.
Unfortunately, the Senior Bowl has been more negative than positive in regard to signal-callers. Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas, Clemson's Tajh Boyd and Miami's (Fla.) Stephen Morris took the brunt of the beating, per CBS Sports' Dane Brugler:
If you isolated Tuesday's highlight throws from Thomas, Boyd and Morris, you would have three potential first round picks. But once you add the negative passes and lowlights from the practice, you're left with three physically gifted players who are wildly inconsistent throwing the football. There is still work to be done on these players, but it's hard not to be discouraged by this week's results so far.
Cincinnati is in a position to pick a project player to groom behind Dalton should the TCU product need to be replaced, but it is hard to argue any of the aforementioned three is worth the investment and risk with the team's championship window potentially beginning to ease shut.
Derek Carr out of Fresno State and Easter Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo are two names that the Cincinnati Bengals may have a major interest in this week, but the former is expected to go much higher than the team can justify taking him.
Garoppolo is another story. As Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey notes, he has done much to close the gap this week:
On this week's work alone, I have Derek Carr (QB Fresno State) as the top QB, but Jimmy Garoppolo (QB E. Illinois) isn't that far off. Carr's deep-ball accuracy has disappointed me, and his release isn't nearly as quick as Garoppolo's. That said, this is just a tiny part of the process, and Carr is still a much better prospect off of tape. It's important to keep everything this week in that context.
Carr is a talented prospect, but the last thing the fans in Cincinnati want to read about right now is inadequate deep-ball accuracy.
The Senior Bowl is just another feather in Garoppolo's cap at this point. He shattered all of Tony Romo's records at Eastern Illinois and threw for 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns as a senior. Scouts wanted to see if he could do it against college football's best, and he responded by winning MVP at the East-West Shrine Game and is now tearing it up at the Senior Bowl.
Second-best quarterback in Mobile, by far, has been Jimmy Garoppolo. Spinning the ball, quick & compact release. Like him a lot.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 22, 2014
As far as potential franchise quarterbacks who may fall to the middle rounds and fit well in Cincinnati after a year or so of adapting to the pro level, Garoppolo is perhaps the best option.