Unexciting, Underachieving Draft Still Pleases Bengals Fans

So the NFL draft didn't go exactly as the Bengals hoped. In an ideal society, per their official Web site, they might have picked up North Carolina State linebacker prospect Manny Lawson for easy

May 3, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

So the NFL draft didn't go exactly as the Bengals hoped. In an ideal society, per their official Web site, they might have picked up North Carolina State linebacker prospect Manny Lawson for easy adaptability to a 3-4 defense and Notre Dame tight end Anthony Fasano for more pass catching. The Bengals settled for depth.

Tough breaks. The San Francisco 49ers took Lawson two selections before the Bengals picked in the first round. The Dallas Cowboys snapped up Fasano two picks before the Bengals selected in the second round.

The Bengals ended those rounds with South Carolina cornerback Johnathan Joseph and Louisiana State offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth. Depth.

But there should be no thumbing of noses at depth after the Bengals struggled with secondary injuries late last season and before they face massive free agency on their offensive line heading to 2007. The Bengals probably didn't add key components to their football team in the short run, but they've consolidated positions in which thinness could pose trouble down the road.

Fans want glamour in the draft. Their team is picking up new players, and it's nice to hear about them even when nothing more can be said than complete speculation. That's how the draft has become such a huge event, particularly since ESPN began televising it 25 years ago. Content-free television can still be good television.

Football teams want pieces, and the draft is the best way to get them. Each team tries to make it as little of a guessing game as possible until its name is called and the team's trigger man closes his eyes and points. That's why it's much better to be in position to draft for depth. The players involved are less hyped, there's a lot less unreliable testimony around and the picks are less risky from a public relations standpoint.

So the Bengals didn't push the glitzometer into the red zone last weekend. Fine. Leave that for the games.

Joseph runs a 4.3 40-yard dash and made 55 tackles last year at South Carolina, where he lined up as the strong side corner. Whitworth is 6-7, 334 pounds, never missed a game or practice at LSU to injury and finished his collegiate career by not allowing a sack in his last 22 consecutive games.

The Bengals' third-round selection, Southern California defensive end Frostee Rucker, led the Trojans last year with 14 tackles for loss and played a bit of outside linebacker early in his college career at Colorado State. The fourth-round selection, Michigan State defensive tackle Domata Peko, weighs 322 pounds and still is light enough on his feet to return a fumble 74 yards for a touchdown last season.

Following those defensive line selections, the Bengals took linebacker A.J. Nicholson from Florida State, then finished the draft with three wide receivers, the most intriguing of whom is Texas A&M quarterback Reggie McNeal, a living legend in the high school football hotbed of Lufkin, Tex., who's one of the best pure athletes in the draft. Depth.

How long has it been since the Bengals drafted for depth? It's exciting to draft for depth, even when the names aren't so exciting, because it means your team is for real.

You're already going to the playoffs. You've beaten the Super Bowl champions to the division title. You don't need rookies to start, and an excellent chance exists that the Bengals won't start a rookie. Probably for the first time since 1995, they won't start a first-day drafted rookie in either of their first two games. And that wouldn't be bad news.

But maybe they catch some lightning in a bottle with one or two of these guys. Maybe Joseph burns up the lawn as a punt returner, McNeal becomes the Antwaan Randle El or Cordell Stewart whom the Pittsburgh Steelers no longer possess or the draft picks in the defensive front seven give the Bengals versatility to cook up nightmares for Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning, maybe even for, say, Eli Manning sometime next February.

Exactly how does this world turn? The Reds are off to a 19-8 start, the best in baseball, and everyone's waiting for the other shoe to drop. The Bengals turn out their most blah draft in more than 15 years, and no one can wait until training camp.

It would seem Cincinnati fans figures the Reds will collapse right about when the Bengals line up in Georgetown, which is about how the athletic calendar has often fallen in recent years.

And there probably ought to be no fascination with any of that. The Bengals have become the reliable pro team in town.

Before waiting on the Bengals, however, a public service announcement on behalf of the Reds might be in order. Through Sunday, the Reds notched a team ERA of 4.85, which is actually better than four other National League clubs. The Reds haven't finished with an earnie under 5.00 since 2002, and offenses are said to be more prolific this year. Most encouraging and important, the Reds walked only 75 batters, the NL's second best performance in that curiously overlooked category, behind only the St. Louis Cardinals.

And they're doing a fine job against the opposition running game, allowing only seven stolen bases in 13 attempts. Opponents still smash the ball when they connect, but when they don't connect they're much more likely to strike out than to walk. Good sign.

Not to say the Reds are for real. Only to say their pitching gives them a little chance this season.

The other shoe might not ever drop. And if it does drop, it might not kick them too hard. The Reds could stick around a bit. Maybe even beyond the start of Bengals training camp.

And when the Bengals begin working out, even after this rather anonymous draft, fans will be confident they've added useful talent to their ranks. Marvin Lewis and his staff have earned that kind of respect for their judgment.

Marvin knows. Marvin will provide. We're almost sure of it. Even if the draft didn't go exactly as the Bengals wanted.