Inside the NFL: Bengals turn draft quantity into quality - The Buffalo News

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Inside the NFL: Bengals turn draft quantity into quality

Today’s Football 101 Quiz comes with apologies to that ubiquitous cell phone TV commercial:

When it comes to NFL draft picks, what’s better: more or less?

That uncomplicated principle is one of the things the Cincinnati Bengals have done right in building a solid team that has made the playoffs the last two years.

The Bengals have had 101 draft picks in the 11 years coach Marvin Lewis has been with the organization. That’s third most in the league, behind Green Bay and Philadelphia, both of which have had 102. (Buffalo is tied for 10th over the same period with 89. The league average is 87.)

In the last six drafts, the Bengals have had 58 picks, second only to the Eagles’ 59. The league average is 47. It isn’t because the Bengals are loading up on late-rounders, either. They have the second-most picks in the top four rounds in Lewis’ tenure.

“In my boss’ viewpoint, Mike Brown, we’re going to build the football team through the draft, and it’s really a viewpoint that we both share,” Lewis said this week on a conference call with Buffalo reporters. “My time in the NFL has been spent on teams that do it that way — Pittsburgh and Baltimore and here predominantly. … It’s the way I’m comfortable doing it. I love watching tape of players and evaluating players. That’s the fun part of it.”

The Bengals have been particularly good at identifying defensive talent outside of the first round. Their front seven is fierce. Geno Atkins and Domata Peko are among the best defensive tackle duos in the league. They both were fourth-round picks. Ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson came in the second and third rounds, respectively. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga was a second-rounder. Weak-side linebacker Vontaze Burfict was a college free agent.

“As time goes on, I think our personnel people and the coaches have been able to mesh well together,” Lewis said. “We’re looking for the guy who can be productive on an NFL field, that’s the most important thing. What they did in college is great. But are they a great knee bender? Do they have the flexibility on defense to snap their hips and get off the block? … Now what we’re not sure of sometimes is the kid’s inner attitude. But hopefully we’ve done enough research on that and we feel good about that as well.”

Of course, there are countless ways to analyze a team’s draft record. The Bengals over the years have taken more chances on players with character questions. Burfict, who numerous teams wouldn’t touch due to red flags, was a recent example. New Orleans has the fewest picks of any team the last six years (32), but it doesn’t matter because the Saints have Drew Brees.

Nevertheless, the Bengals give themselves more room for error by hoarding picks, and that’s a good thing.

Big spreads

Denver’s 26½-point spread against Jacksonville today is one of the largest since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. The underdog covered the spread in four of the five previous largest margins.

Pittsburgh was a 27-point favorite over expansion Tampa Bay in 1976 and won, 42-0. The others: Patriots (plus-24.5) over Eagles in 2007 (won by 3), Niners (plus-24) over Bengals in 1993 (won by 13), Niners (plus-23.5) over Falcons in 1987 (won by 8) and Cowboys (plus-23) over Bucs in 1977 (won by 16).

Player spotlight

Jerrell Freeman, LB, Indianapolis. Watch for Freeman, No. 50, in Monday night’s game against San Diego. Freeman is the defensive counterpart to Fred Jackson, a Division III product who took a winding road to the NFL. Like Jackson, Freeman was unrecruited by colleges because he was an undersized, late-bloomer. Freeman was a 188-pound defensive end as a high school senior in Waco, Texas. He won an academic scholarship to the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, which was a women’s college until 1971 and didn’t start a D-3 football program until 1998. Freeman was D-3 defensive player of the year in 2007 and signed as an undrafted free agent with Tennessee in 2008. He got cut and spent three seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The Colts signed him last year. In his first NFL game, he returned an interception of a Jay Cutler pass for a touchdown.

At 6-foot, 232 pounds, he’s a run-and-chase, undersized inside linebacker. He plays all three downs, and all he does is make tackles. His teammates call him “Baby Ray,” a reference to Ray Lewis. Freeman finished fifth in the NFL in tackles last year with 145 and he’s tied for 10th this year. Only 10 D-3 players have been drafted since 2000.

Gronk’s left arm

It appears All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski has wrested more control over his return to action from the Pats’ organization. After all he has been through with his left forearm, who can blame him?

The Williamsville native seemed unlikely to make his season debut today against the Saints. Renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews recently was brought on as a consultant on the arm injury, at the request of Gronkowski’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, according to Boston media reports.

Gronkowski’s left forearm has undergone four surgeries. He originally broke it last November on an extra-point attempt near the end of a blowout win over the Colts. He played six weeks later in the season finale against Miami but looked tentative. In the playoff win over Houston two weeks later, he landed on the arm and re-broke it. The break wasn’t in the same spot. It was at the end of a medically inserted plate in the forearm.

He subsequently developed an infection in the arm and required two more surgeries on it. Gronkowski had back surgery June 18. It was presumed all summer that the back is what would delay his return to the field. But all indications are the hold-up is getting final clearance on the arm. He has been practicing since the start of the season. The Pats’ struggling offense needs him badly. He owes it to his career to be as sure as possible the arm is right before he plays again.

Smith’s troubles

It’s looking more and more like San Francisco’s star edge rusher, Aldon Smith, will be shut down for the season. Smith is in an in-patient treatment facility after crashing his car and being charged with driving under the influence on Sept. 20. He’s on indefinite leave of absence.

This week Smith was charged with three counts of illegal possession of assault weapons. They were found at his home after a wild party last year that ended with Smith being stabbed and two men being shot.

Onside kicks

• One more fourth-quarter comeback will give the Colts’ Andrew Luck 10 in his first two seasons, which would be an NFL record.

• Baltimore is expected to start Eugene Monroe, newly acquired from Jacksonville, in place of Bryant McKinnie at left tackle.

• Junior Seau’s younger brother, Antonio, died Thursday at age 36 at a San Diego hospital. Family and friends posted online that the cause was a heart attack.


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