April 2013

Bengals Add More Muscle To Team Strength

This year, the Bengals not only had their scouts and coaches in Mobile, AL for the Senior Bowl – defensive end Wallace Gilberry took the opportunity to check out the best NFL draft prospects as well.

“They practice not too far from my house,” Wallace told me.  “So I like to go over and get involved.”

Hunt at senior bowl

As a result, when Cincinnati drafted DE Margus Hunt from SMU with the 21st pick of the second round (#53 overall), Gilberry knew exactly who – and what – the Bengals were getting.

“I saw him down in Mobile and the kid is huge,” said Gilberry with a laugh.  “He looks like he is out of place he’s so big.  Once I saw that we had drafted him, I was excited to get the kid in here.  He probably doesn’t remember me, but I definitely remember him.”

Andy Dalton remembers Hunt too.  He faced the 6’8”, 277 pound lineman with 4.6 speed in the 40-yard dash in Dalton’s final two seasons at TCU.

“He’s a freak athletically,” said Dalton.  “To be so big, and so strong, and so fast – I think he is a great addition for us.”

But not exactly at a position of need.

“We knew that we didn’t have to push him in there right away,” said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.  “We have a good group of defensive lineman and he can learn from them and we can look for ways to incorporate him into the defense as we get going.”

Atkins sacks Roethlisberger (440x298)

Hunt joins a position group that is arguably the most dominant in the NFL.  Last year, the Bengals defensive line accounted for 40 of a franchise-record 51 sacks and all seven lineman who accounted for that total are under contract for this season.

“Why not add more weapons?” said Carlos Dunlap.  “The defensive line is the strong point of our team right now and why not bring in a guy who you think can add another aspect to it.”

“You can never have too many big men,” said Domata Peko.  “It’s hard to find quality defensive linemen so we’re going to welcome him with open arms to our group.”

“We’ve got a lot of different guys that are big, high-motor guys and drafting Hunt just adds to that,” Dalton told me.  “I guess you can’t have too many defensive linemen in the rotation.”

Margus Hunt isn’t the only promising addition up front.  Keep in mind that last year’s second round pick – Devon Still – and one of the team’s third round picks – Brandon Thompson – barely played as rookies.

Sanu, Thompson, Still (440x294)

“I can’t wait to see these kids get on the field,” said Gilberry.  “I got to practice the whole year with Devon and Brandon and just look at them – they’re hungry, they understand the game, and they’re ready to play.  I can’t wait to see what happens when they take the leash off of them.”

Hunt, Still, and Thompson give the Bengals young depth behind Geno Atkins, Robert Geathers, Michael Johnson, Peko, Gilberry, and Dunlap.  The battle for playing time should be fierce.

“We’ve got a strong rotation,” Dunlap told me.  “Everybody plays and everybody gets to eat.

“This year we want to raise it up another level.  I don’t feel like I contributed as much as I could have last year (6 sacks), so I’m challenging myself to get up there with Mike (11.5 sacks) and Geno (12.5 sacks).”

Dunlap and Atkins are entering the final season of their four-year contracts, and the Bengals kept Johnson this year by using an $11.175 million franchise tag.  By continuing to spend high draft picks on defensive lineman, the Bengals protect themselves against the possibility of losing somebody in free agency.

“You’ve got to understand where the front office is coming from too,” said Gilberry.  “The only thing we can do down here is take care of ourselves and play football.”

“You can’t worry about who they are going to bring in.  Hell, I could be gone tomorrow.  It’s just that kind of business.”

Gilberry and Geathers don’t appear to be going anywhere after signing three-year extensions in March.  The only significant contributor on the defensive line who isn’t back is run-stopper Pat Sims who signed a one-year deal with Oakland.

“Defensive line is one of the strengths of the team, so we’re really excited that they were able to keep us together and add a little more firepower to it,” said Peko.

“When I first got here, guys wanted to get out of this locker room,” said Geathers.  “Now guys want to stick around and we like the direction of the team.  Guys want to be a Bengal and want to retire as a Bengal.”

Andy Dalton is a long way from retirement – and happy that the only time he has to face the Bengals defensive line is at practice.

“I get to wear a different colored jersey so I don’t have to worry about these guys coming after me,” he said.

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Margus Hunt: International Man Of Mystery

In 2006 it appeared that Margus Hunt was on his way to Olympic gold.

Margus Hunt

The then-19-year-old became the first athlete in history to win both the shot put and discus in the same year at the World Junior Championships.  It made him a national celebrity in his home country of Estonia.

“That was a problem,” said Hunt.  “When you come from a country that has 1.3 million people and do something like that, there’s huge pressure on your shoulders to win the Olympics in two years.  I had to get out.”

So he moved to the United States to train at SMU under famed track coach Dave Wollman.  But by the time he arrived in Dallas, the school had dropped its men’s track program.

“It’s been a weird rollercoaster ride to say the least,” said Hunt.  “Six years ago I was sure that I was going to be in the Olympics in 2012.  You never know what life is going to bring you.  You go with the decisions at hand and just work your butt off.”

In order to stay at SMU, Hunt tried out for football and was given a scholarship based on his freakish athletic ability.  But there was one small problem:  Margus knew nothing about the game.

“I had my tryout in November of 2008 and then went home for Christmas,” said Hunt.  “That’s when I bought Madden.”

That’s right.  The 53rd overall selection in this year’s NFL draft began learning the game at the age of 21 by playing Madden NFL football.

“I went out and got Madden to have more of an overview of what the game is about,” said Hunt.  “Just the overall view of it – the defense and how it works.  You kind of see where the guys are going.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Hunt studied football by playing a video game.  After all, he says he taught himself English by watching American television and movies.

“I watched a lot of Friends when I was back in Estonia and whatever American movies came out,” said Hunt.  “In France, Germany, and Italy, they have TV shows dubbed over, but we had subtitles so I was able to learn English fairly quickly through that.”

He learned the language well enough to graduate on schedule at SMU with a 2.7 GPA in sports management.  On the field, Margus went from being a kick blocking specialist as a freshman, to an All-Conference defensive end by the time he was a senior.

“What really helped me is when they put me in the starting lineup my sophomore year,” said Hunt.  “We had some issues on the defensive line where one of the guys was suspended, so they made me a defensive end and I got a lot of reps and a lot of work.  That showed me what I needed to do if I wanted to get to the NFL in a couple of years.”

After being named the MVP of the Hawaii Bowl in his final college game (3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles), Hunt posted jaw-dropping numbers at the NFL combine for a 6’8”, 277 pound lineman.  Of course, sprinting and lifting weights were nothing new for Margus.

“The combine is essentially a track meet,” said Hunt.

“He can run like a deer, he’s got great strength – we just have to point him in the right direction,” said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.

Zimmer’s challenge will be helping Hunt adapt to lightning-fast NFL football as a 26-year-old rookie.

“Football-wise he’s about 12,” said Zimmer.  “But he’s an exceptionally hard worker.  You watch this guy play on tape and he’s running all over the field.”

“Every day I go out there and I have to tell myself, ‘Stay low, stay low.  Look where you put your hands.  Play with leverage.’” said Hunt.  “There are a lot of things to learn every day.”

One thing Margus doesn’t have to learn is how to deal with public scrutiny.  When the Bengals selected Hunt in the second round on Friday night it was national news in Estonia.

“We have ESPN back home so there were a bunch of journalists who were up all night watching the draft,” said Hunt.

It took a while for the folks back home to accept his decision to pursue a Super Bowl ring instead of a gold medal.

“Some people even called me a national traitor at one point,” said Hunt.  “Track and field is something they’re really proud of and they take a lot of credit in that.  But it was something that I had to do for myself and now they finally understand.

“Football has given me new energy and I’m just so excited to be here.  I can’t wait to get to work.”

Brian Kelly Gives Bengals And Eifert A Rave Review

When Brian Kelly was still the head coach at Cincinnati, he tried to convince Tyler Eifert to play for the Bearcats.  The tight end chose Notre Dame instead, only to have Kelly take over as head coach when Charlie Weis was fired before Tyler’s sophomore year.

Eifert leaping (440x307)

“We were looking for this kind of player in our offense at Cincinnati and it just worked out that when I took the job at Notre Dame, he and Kyle Rudolph fell in my lap,” Kelly told me.  “They made me look pretty good.”

Rudolph was named the MVP of the Pro Bowl this year following his second season with the Minnesota Vikings.  The former Elder High School star was one year ahead of Eifert at Notre Dame and a more obvious NFL prospect.

“He came in his freshman year ready to play,” said Eifert.  “I came in at 210 pounds just happy to have a scholarship.  I obviously knew that there was a lot of work that I had to do.”

But Kelly could see Eifert’s pro potential.

“Obviously some kids have to grow and mature and he certainly did,” said Kelly.  “You knew that Kyle was a sure-fire NFL player and then you saw Tyler Eifert and some of the things that he did – I knew immediately that he was going to be a special player.”

Despite not having a catch as a freshman, Eifert left Notre Dame with the school’s all-time record for receptions by a tight end with 140.  When the Bengals contacted Kelly to discuss his tight end before the draft, they received a rave review.

“We was kind of glowing in talking about Tyler and what Tyler meant to their football team,” said Marvin Lewis.  “He really felt like he was able to use him in a lot of ways in a mismatch against the defense and that he would give us a lot of flexibility.”

“I told the Bengals that Tyler is smart – he got his degree from Notre Dame in three-and-a-half years,” said Kelly.  “He’s physically and mentally tough.  And he’s the best pass catcher that I’ve coached – whether it be a wide receiver or a tight end.

“I would think that making the contested catch is probably his strength when you come to all of the intangibles at the tight end position.  He will take the ball away from you when the ball is in the air.  He turns field goals into touchdowns in the red zone.”

Adding a red zone weapon is obviously one of the reasons why the Bengals used their first round draft pick on a tight end despite already having two-time Pro Bowler Jermaine Gresham on the roster.

Eifert catch (301x440)

“I think the Bengals are going to have so many different opportunities with Gresham as the other tight end,” said Kelly.  “Now you force teams to drop down to single safety and single coverage because they have to defend the run.  I think that tight end package is something that a lot of NFL teams have looked at and found that they can get some favorable matchups.  At Notre Dame, we used that a lot last year and really think that it gave us some great opportunities.”

In addition to thinking that Eifert will be a good fit for the Bengals offense, the Notre Dame Coach says that the 22-year-old from Fort Wayne, IN will fit in nicely in Cincinnati.

“He loves country music and will golf every day if he can,” said Kelly with a laugh.  “I told him, ‘You’re a perfect fit for Cincinnati.  If those two things are on your wish list, you can’t get a better city than Cincinnati.’  He’s a pretty casual guy.  Flip-flops and shorts is generally how he is seen around campus.  He’s got a great personality, big smile, but he’s really a laid-back kind of guy.”

And while Eifert hasn’t spent much time talking about Cincinnati with his former college coach, he did discuss his new home with Kyle Rudolph.

“He said, ‘Welcome to the Nasty ‘Nati’ or something like that,” said Eifert.  “He was telling me about the hangouts and he said that his parents live here if I need anything.  I told him that I might just rent from his parents and stay in his room.”

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Congratulations Corky

So imagine that you hire a guy to add shutters and planter boxes to your home, only to find out that he is an active major league baseball player.

Not only that, but he has homered off of Greg Maddux.

And stole home.

The only possible person to fit that description is Corky Miller.

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The 37-year-old catcher is in his 16th professional season, including part of 11 seasons in the big leagues, but the overwhelming majority of his time has been spent in the minors.  As a result, “professional athlete” has not been his only occupation.

“I’ve done everything – you name it,” Corky told me.  “I’ve been a chef, I’ve laid concrete, I’ve laid floors, I’ve done some woodwork, I’ve done construction, and this year I made exterior shutters and planters with a buddy of mine in Chicago as well as doing some baseball lessons for the local teams.  When you spend more time in the minor leagues than the big leagues, you have to have an off-season income.”

Last Friday, Miller played in his 1002nd minor league game before learning two days later that he was being promoted from Louisville to Cincinnati to replace the injured Ryan Hanigan.  When Corky starts against the Cubs on Tuesday night, he’ll be playing in his 200th major league game and his first in 933 days. 

“This call-up is special because I haven’t been up here in two years,” said Miller.  “I worked pretty hard this off-season knowing that Ryan and Devin (Mesoraco) were going to be in the big leagues but I had to be ready in case something happened.

“That’s 200 games over 11 seasons.  It’s probably not a big feat for a lot of guys.  Hopefully it winds up being a couple more than that.”

Miller has played for five major league teams – Cincinnati, Atlanta, Minnesota, Chicago (AL), and Boston – but has spent the bulk of his career in the Reds organization including a franchise-record nine different seasons with Triple-A Louisville.  On April 6th, the Bats gave away Corky Miller bobbleheads.

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“My son says that his favorite team is the Louisville Bats,” said Miller with a laugh.  “I’ve spent nine years there and having a bobblehead was kind of the icing on the cake.” 

Miller’s major league highlights include a two home run game vs. the Cubs as a rookie in 2001, and that home run off of Maddux in 2002.

“Everybody brings that up,” said Miller.  “It was just another homer at the time, but I’m sure I’ll tell my kids about it when he’s in the Hall of Fame.”

The bulky catcher also stole home in his 10th major league game.

“It’s my only stolen base period,” Corky told me.  “There were runners on first and third and we had the squeeze play on.  I think that Omar Daal was on the mound at The Vet in Philadelphia.  He picked up his leg and I broke for home thinking that the batter was going to lay down a squeeze bunt and Daal threw over to first.  By the time I slid home it wasn’t even close.  What stands out in my mind is that we won the game 2-1.  I was fast back then.  After you catch about a thousand games in the minor leagues you get kind of slow.”

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I got to know Corky in 2006 when I was a broadcaster for the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox and he was one of our catchers.  On Monday in the Reds dugout, I asked him the following question:  “Of the 750 players that are currently active on major league rosters, do any of them appreciate being here more than you do?”

“I don’t know about that, but I appreciate it big time for me and my family,” said Miller.  “Just getting another chance to be around this atmosphere with these guys – especially with the quality of ball club that we have.  Hopefully I’ll be around at the end of September and get to watch what’s going on.”

In other words, he’s in no hurry to hang shutters.

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Harrison Adds Reputation And Rings To Bengals Defense

Bengals defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry is like a lot of us:  He learned that five-time Pro Bowler James Harrison had agreed to a contract with Cincinnati on Friday while surfing the internet.

ProFootballTalk.com,” said Gilberry with a laugh.  “That’s where I get my NFL news – that and Ian Rapoport who I follow on Twitter.  I was excited because at first, they were reporting that the talks weren’t going well and he wasn’t leaning towards here and then the next thing you know we had signed him.”

Andrew Whitworth was at a Reds game on Friday night when he got the news, and the Bengals left tackle said that he expected it.

“I was pretty confident that it was going to happen,” said Whitworth.  “It seemed like a good fit and one that made sense for us and for him.”

Harrison sacks Dalton (440x352)

Harrison is likely to replace Manny Lawson as the “Sam” or strong side linebacker in the Cincinnati’s 4-3 defense.  It’s different from the role he played in Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 scheme in Pittsburgh, but Harrison’s new teammates are confident that Mike Zimmer will find a way to make good use the veteran’s skills.

“People keep coming up to me any saying, ‘Man, are you happy that you don’t have to play that guy in the division anymore?’” said Whitworth.  “And I tell them, ‘No, because now I’m going to have to deal with him every day at practice when Zimmer is coming up with some concoction in the way that they’re bringing him.’  I’m sure it’s going to be a lot of fun, and I’m sure Zimmer is excited about having another little piece to add to the stuff that he does.”

Gilberry is a good example of Zimmer’s ability to maximize a player’s ability.  The six-year veteran joined the Bengals in week three last year after he was released by Tampa Bay and he had an immediate impact in Cincinnati.  Wallace finished third on the team with 6.5 sacks, forced a fumble, and recovered three fumbles including one that he returned for a touchdown against the Eagles.

“I think he’ll be fine because he has a lot of talent,” said Gilberry.  “If Coach Zimmer can get me to play at that level in a short period of time – James Harrison will have a full off-season so the sky is definitely the limit for what Coach Zimmer can do with him.”

At the age of 35, Harrison isn’t likely to be the dominant force that earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2008.  But ESPN’s AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley makes a compelling case that the former Steeler will add a mean streak to the Cincinnati defense.

“What the Bengals never had on defense was an edge, or at least I never sensed one,” wrote Hensley.  “That won’t be the case now with Harrison, who is carrying a chip on his shoulder as large as a Primanti Brothers sandwich (or whatever the Cincinnati equivalent would be).  Harrison carries grudges.  Just ask the Baltimore Ravens who once cut Harrison and got some of his best efforts each season.”

Harrison intimidates (440x298)

While the Bengals don’t necessarily agree they lacked “an edge” on defense, they welcome Harrison’s tough-guy persona.

“He has a little swagger to him,” said Robert Geathers.  “I think that will help us a lot.

“I think that everybody goes about their business in different ways.  With James, obviously some of the things over the years you can see with your own eyes.  We’ve been a top defense over the last few years, so I think we have nastiness in us.”

“We have a couple of guys in here that play that way and hopefully he can enhance it and bring it out of some other guys,” said Gilberry.  “I think he’s going to bring a lot of attitude – definitely a lot of veteran leadership.  I’m excited to get him in here and get to working with him.”

“I grew up a Steelers fan so I’ve watched him a lot,” said Devon Still.  “I think he’s a player that goes out there and gives it his all.  He’s definitely a big impact player.”

Harrison joins the Bengals with 64 sacks, 29 forced fumbles, and 5 INT on his resume – not to mention two Super Bowl rings.

“He’s been to the top and any time you can add a guy like that to a locker room that hasn’t – we’re young, we’re talented, but we haven’t been there,” said Whitworth.  “It’s a great leadership thing, it’s a great example thing, and it’s something that we can all learn from.”

“It will be good to have another veteran guy and a guy that’s been where we want to go,” said Geathers.  “He’s been to Super Bowls and he knows how to get there.

“He’s definitely one of the great defense players that I’m going to be fortunate enough to play with.”

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Jones Hopes For “Monster” Second Season In Cincy

In two games as a rookie against Pittsburgh, Marvin Jones never got leveled by Steelers linebacker James Harrison.  Still, the Bengals wide receiver is happy that he won’t have to face the five-time Pro Bowler again after Harrison agreed to a two-year deal with Cincinnati on Friday.

Harrison sack (440x397)

“Shoot, he’s a monster,” Jones said with a laugh.  “Whenever you add a monster to your defense you can’t go anywhere but up.”

But even without Harrison, the Bengals defense was among the best in the NFL last season.  The Cincinnati offense, on the other hand, has considerable room for growth in 2013 and Jones hopes to have a significant impact.

After being drafted in the fifth round last year, the former Cal standout had a limited role in the first 11 games of the season – in part because of a knee injury that kept him out of three games.  But following a late-season injury to fellow rookie receiver Mohamed Sanu, Jones moved into the starting lineup and finished strong.  In the Bengals final three games against Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Houston, Marvin had 13 catches for 144 yards including his first NFL touchdown against the Ravens (see the highlight here).

“I felt good about my rookie season,” said Jones.  “I got some experience and was in on quite a few plays.  Obviously there are things that I can improve on and I think that will come with maturity and being comfortable out there.  But I think that I finished strong and I want to build upon that.

“Now there are no nerves where you’re like, ‘Oh man, what is going to happen?’  I have a year within this offense, I know all of the positions very well, and I’m familiar with Andy (Dalton).”

Marvin Jones vs Houston (440x297)

Following his first NFL season, Jones took three weeks off before beginning a Monday-through-Thursday training regimen.  The highlight of his off-season was a vacation to Central America.

“I went out to Belize,” said Jones.  “That’s where my fiancé’s grandparents are from, so we went out there for about 10 days and did everything – swim, blue hole, hiked the Mayan ruins, snorkeling, and zip lining.  It was a pretty full vacation and I proposed to her while we were there as well.  I couldn’t have asked for anything better than that.”

Now that he’s taken care of the engagement ring, Marvin has his sights set on a Super Bowl ring, and the 23-year-old was happy to be reunited with his teammates when the Bengals returned to town for off-season workouts this week.

“The first thing you do is smile and laugh when you see everybody again,” Marvin told me.  “It reminds me of the first day of school.

“In college you have like, a week-and-a-half or two weeks off and then you’re right back in the thick of things.  At this level, you can go on vacation and do other stuff and then you’re like, ‘Dang, now what do I do?’  It was fun but I was definitely ready to come back here and get back at it.”

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Still and Thompson Ready For Action After “Redshirt” Year

If the NFL played by college eligibility rules, the Bengals would probably have the best group of “redshirt freshman” in the country.

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Due to a knee injury, last year’s top draft pick Dre Kirkpatrick – the 17th overall selection – was limited to 43 defensive snaps at cornerback all season.

Second round pick Devon Still, the former Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year, was inactive for the last eight games of the regular season and the Wild Card playoff game after veteran defensive tackle Pat Sims returned from the injury list.  And third round pick Brandon Thompson, one of the most powerful defensive tackles in last year’s draft, only appeared in three games all year due to the team’s depth on the defensive line.

Additionally, fifth round pick Shaun Prater, who flashed NFL potential at cornerback before suffering an August knee injury, missed the entire season.

That means four of the Bengals top seven draft picks last year are almost like additional members of this year’s upcoming rookie crop.

“In a sense it was a redshirt year,” said Still.  “It definitely wasn’t what I expected.  It definitely humbled me and let me how hard I have to work to stay on the field.”

Sanu, Thompson, Still (440x294)

Still and Thompson will definitely be in the mix for more playing time this year following the departure of Sims as a free agent to the Oakland Raiders.

“Now that Pat is gone, it opens that door wide open for a third man in the rotation on the inside of the defensive line,” Still told me.  “I’m going to go as hard as I can to get that spot.”

“Even before Pat left, I came in thinking that I had an opportunity,” said Thompson.  “I want to come in, play hard, and work myself into a role.”

Both defensive linemen say their first year with the Bengals was beneficial even though much of it was spent on the sidelines.

“It was tough, but I had to do my role which was to watch and learn,” said Thompson.  “Hopefully I can use what I learned last year to have a great year.  Having a year under my belt to learn the system and find out where I fit in really helps me out.”

“When you’re going against eight and nine year veterans, they have their technique down pat,” said Still.  “You have to hurry up and learn as much as possible.  Now we have an understanding of how the season goes and what the coaches expect from us.”

Still spent five years at Penn State (including a redshirt season) and Thompson spent four at Clemson.  That meant their first off-seasons as professionals were a welcome break.

“I’ve never had this much time off before – especially coming from college where everything was such a routine,” said Still.  “It’s been quite an experience to be able to travel, spend time with family, and do things that I haven’t been able to do during the last five years when I was in school.”

“This has been the most time that I’ve had off in years,” said Thompson.  “I really enjoyed it.  I got to spend a lot of time with my family and friends and that’s what really matters.  I also had a lot of time to train and work on my craft.”

With the Bengals returning to town this week for off-season workouts, the bulk of their vacation time is history, but the second year defensive lineman say they are ready to get back to work.

“There’s a huge opportunity now that Pat left the team,” said Still.  “Me and Brandon want to work as hard as possible this off-season to prove to the coaches that we belong on the field and we can make an impact on the defensive line.”

“I’m very eager for my second season,” said Thompson.  “I get to show the coaches what I can do and I’m ready.”

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Winn Has Prominent Backer As Draft Approaches

It you want to see former UC standout George Winn flash an ear-to-ear smile, all you have to do is mention a certain helmet-haired NFL draft expert.

“Mel Kiper,” said a grinning Winn.  “Every time he mentions me it’s something positive.

“I get excited every time he gives me a shout-out.  I really appreciate it.”

The ESPN analyst has been singing Winn’s praises in recent interviews previewing the upcoming NFL draft.

“A guy that I think will be a great 5th or 6th round pick — you’re always looking for that next Alfred Morris — is George Winn at Cincinnati,” Kiper told reporters.  “George Winn, for me, is a very underrated player who I thought definitely showed the capability of being a guy who can contribute in the National Football League as a nice late-round pick.”

Morris, who is listed at the exact same size as Winn (5’10”, 218), was selected in the sixth round by Washington last year and had a sensational rookie season, setting the Redskins’ single-season rushing record with 1,613 yards.

“It’s a privilege to be compared to someone who had that great of a season.” said Winn.

The Redskins’ rookie – who played college ball at Florida Atlantic – saw his draft stock dive when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds at the NFL scouting combine.  Of the 44 running backs that ran in 2012, 33 posted faster times.

Winn also posted a disappointing 40-yard dash time at the combine as he ran a 4.75.

“I had a tight hamstring at the combine,” Winn told me.  “The couple of weeks I had to prepare before my Pro Day helped me to improve the strength and health of my hamstring which really helped me run a better 40.”

In his March 13th Pro Timing Day at Cincinnati, Winn improved his time in the 40-yard dash to 4.53.

“They say it doesn’t matter much and you shouldn’t put much emphasis on it, but if it wasn’t that important they wouldn’t have us doing it,” said Winn.  “So it’s clearly important.”

Winn running (440x299)

Winn took part in the Bengals workout for local prospects on Tuesday at Paul Brown Stadium, and since he grew up near Detroit, George will participate in a similar workout with the Lions on Wednesday.  What is he hearing from NFL scouts?

“They like my running style, how I pass protect, they like my special teams value, so I’m pretty excited,” said Winn.  “I’m excited to get out here and prove what I can do.”

One year ago, nobody would have expected NFL teams to have George Winn on their draft boards.  In his first three years with the Bearcats, George never carried the ball more than 40 times in a season. But following the departure of All-Big East running back Isaiah Pead, Winn had a monster season in 2012, carrying 243 times for 1,334 yards and 13 TD.

“It’s surreal,” said Winn.  “To come from where I came from and to be where I am now is amazing.  It’s a blessing.

“I always go back to my freshman year when I was dead last on the depth chart.  I started at the very bottom and worked my way up to the top.”

And if you believe Mel Kiper, Winn isn’t finished climbing.

“You think about what George Winn is physically, and moving forward, I think he can hold up in this league,” Kiper told reporters.  “He’s five-foot-10-and-a-half, almost 220 pounds, and played a lot faster than (his 40-yard dash time).  I think he’s got a chance to be a guy that could help your football team.”

I pointed out to Winn on Tuesday that Mel Kiper is a great guy to have in your corner at draft time.

“He definitely is,” George agreed with a laugh.

Has Winn met the nation’s most famous draft analyst?

“I haven’t,” said Winn.  “I’m looking forward to it.  I’m going to thank him a lot.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Dalton Prepares For Third Year By Studying Top Pair

When the football season ends, my wife and I catch up on the TV shows that we never have the opportunity to watch in the fall.

In case you’re interested, we’re currently watching season three of Breaking Bad.  Wow!  It’s definitely on the short list of my all-time favorite shows.

Judging by his Twitter feed, Andy and Jordan Dalton are Homeland viewers in the off-season:

 

But Carrie Mathison and Nicolas Brody are not the only on-screen duo that the Bengals quarterback has been watching.  Dalton has spent much of his off-season studying fellow QBs Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.

Brees and Rodgers (440x248)

“I’ve watched a lot of Green Bay’s offense and I’ve watched a lot of the Saints’ offense because they have two of the best quarterbacks in the league,” said Dalton.  “To see what they’re doing – how they’re getting their completions and how they’re scoring their touchdowns, and what mistakes are they making.  Are they forcing the ball on their interceptions…are they taking chances…what are they doing?

“I’d love for my career to end up like their careers have ended up.  You want to study those guys and see what they’re doing right.  Not only mechanics-wise, footwork, whatever it is, but also offensively what are they doing.  Our offenses are similar – we’re doing a lot of the same stuff that they’re doing – it’s just how they’re putting points on the board.”

The Saints and Packers finished in the top five in the NFL in scoring last year (Cincinnati was 12th), but Dalton says he didn’t spend much time studying the league’s top scoring team – New England.

“I would say that Tom Brady and I are a little bit different,” said Dalton.  “The way that I play I would consider it to be more like a Drew Brees or an Aaron Rodgers – whether it be body type because I’m not 6’5” – and (the Patriots) do different stuff offensively than we do.  Obviously they do a lot of good stuff, but I think the makeup of their team is a little bit different as well.”

Like Dalton, Aaron Rodgers is listed at 6’2”.  Brees, on the other hand, is generously listed at 6’0”.

“It’s funny, before the draft I visited the Saints and they had Drew Brees and Chase Daniel,” said Dalton with a grin.  “They said I might be too tall to play there at 6’2”.

Dalton follow through (440x293)

It’s interesting to compare Dalton to Brees.  Andy’s statistics are far superior to the numbers that Drew posted in his first two years as a starter in the NFL.

Dalton:  629-for-1044 (60.2%), 7067 yards, 47 TD, 29 INT, 83.9 passer rating

Brees:  525-for-882 (59.5%), 5392 yards, 28 TD, 31 INT, 73.1 passer rating

Brees took a quantum leap in his third season as a starter in San Diego, leading the Chargers to an 11-4 record while posting a passer rating of 104.8 and going to his first Pro Bowl.  Dalton hopes to take similar strides in 2013 even though he isn’t ready to call himself an established veteran.

“I’ve played quite a bit so I don’t know what the term is that you use, but I’ve been around for a while and I think I’ve earned some respect,” said Dalton.  “I’m excited for this year.”

One reason for Andy’s excitement is his familiarity with his receiving corps.  He’ll enter his third season with A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham, Andrew Hawkins, Brandon Tate, and Ryan Whalen and his second year with Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Orson Charles.

“I know how guys run routes,” said Dalton.  “I know what to expect from them, what type of person they are, and what type of worker they are.  We’ve got a great group that works really hard and it’s going to be nice to have everybody healthy at the same time.”

“There’s a big difference in confidence level,” said Marvin Jones.  “We have all of these young receivers that have experience now.  We’re ready to be a great force in this league.”

“It’s huge that there’s not a whole lot of teaching now,” said Dalton.  “It’s perfecting what we were doing.”

That includes continuing to find ways to utilize A.J. Green’s unique gifts.  Dalton did not throw Green a pass in the first half of the playoff loss in Houston, and only connected with A.J. once in a home loss to Pittsburgh.

“A.J. got a lot of cover two to his side,” said Dalton.  “They tried to take away some of the vertical throws and things like that.  With the type of player that A.J. is, we’re going to see that a lot.  The big thing with him is moving him around and finding ways to get him the ball.

“With a guy like A.J., the term ‘open’ is a little bit different.  There are times going back and looking at the film where I still probably could have thrown it to him on certain routes and different things where I tried to work somewhere else.  It just comes down to being smart with the ball and knowing when you can take those chances and when to move on.”

Those are undoubtedly some of the lessons that Dalton was hoping to learn by watching Rodgers and Brees in the off-season.  I asked Andy if it was his idea to study those two quarterbacks or if it came from the coaching staff.

“They’ve suggested it, but I was going to watch regardless,” Dalton told me.  “Those are two of the best quarterbacks in the league and you try to take little things from what they’re doing.  I think it will help me out.

“I think I’ve figured things out a little more.  I’ve watched a lot of tape and I’m ready to get back playing again.”

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How A Bearcats Mom Prevented A Signing Day Switch

If sophomore-to-be Ti’on Green becomes an outstanding running back for the University of Cincinnati, Bearcats fans have his mother Leticia to thank.

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Green verbally committed to Cincinnati in October of his senior year at Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, FL, but by National Signing Day the following February, Ti’on was wavering.

“My signing day announcement was broadcast live on Bright House Sports because I won the (Central Florida) Player of the Year award,” said Green.  “I was about to sign on the dotted line with USF and my mother moved the paper away and said, ‘No.  I will not let you ruin your life.  Get out and see something new and meet new people.  Get out of Florida and get away from home.’  She’ll try to deny that she did that.  You really can’t tell on TV because you just see her slide her hand, but she moved the USF paper right out of the way.”

“He was teetering and leaning toward South Florida for a minute, but my heart said Cincinnati,” said Leticia Strickland.  “So I put the Cincinnati paper a little bit above South Florida and he went from there.”

“I had the Cincinnati paper on the left side and USF was on the right,” said Green.  “As I went to sign the paper for USF, my mom slipped it out of the way.  If you watch it on TV, it looked like we practiced it, but she moved it and gave me a little smile.”

“I just felt like Cincinnati is where he needed to be,” Leticia told me.  “I didn’t have anything against South Florida; I was just more at peace with Cincinnati.”

Although Tommy Tuberville was not UC’s head coach when Green signed with the Bearcats in 2012, he’s happy that Ti’on – and Leticia – chose Cincinnati.

“Eddie Gran is one of the better running backs coaches in the country and he likes him,” said Tuberville.  “He likes his stamina.  This is a tough sport for a running back and what we’re going to ask him to do is be very physical in carrying the ball, blocking, and protecting the quarterbacks.”

UC fans got a limited look at Green as a true freshman last year as he carried 16 times for 72 yards (4.4 ypc), including a 2-yard touchdown vs. Miami.  But following the graduation of All-Big East running back George Winn, Ti’on will be in the mix to get significant carries in 2013 along with Ralph David Abernathy IV, and incoming junior college standouts Rodriquez Moore and Hosey Williams.

“I like Ti’on but there’s going to be a lot of competition there,” said Tuberville.  “I think Ralph probably came out (of spring practice) as the number one running back, but he’s not the type of guy that’s going to be able to take on linebackers on the blitz on every down.  So he’s not going to be an every-down running back.”

“We’re going to run the ball under this coaching staff and I don’t know of one back who can do it by himself,” said Green.  “Whatever my role is, I’m just going to step up and do my best to help the Bearcats be successful.”

“I was so proud of him his first year because he went from being a superstar who carried the ball on pretty much every play to having a limited role,” said Ms. Strickland.  “He was so positive and had a good spirit.  I’ve always taught him to stay humble and when your time comes, to handle business.  He’s carried that attitude and I’m a true believer in what’s meant to be.”

As a high school senior, Green showed his talent by carrying 194 times for 1824 yards (9.4 ypc) and 21 touchdowns.  Now he looks forward to learning the finer points of his position from Coach Gran who has sent numerous running backs to the NFL including Rudi Johnson, Ronnie Brown, and Brandon Jacobs.

“He’s a phenomenal coach,” said Green.  “He sits you down and breaks down the offense as simply as possible so that you’re able to understand it.  His track record is crazy but he doesn’t mention it one time.  He treats everybody equally and gives everyone a fair chance to showcase their talents.”

“The biggest thing for Ti’on is consistency,” said Gran.  “Each day you have to pay attention to the details and the little things and that’s my job as a coach – to get him to do that.  Once he decides to do that, he’s going to make a really big contribution to this football team.”

“”He’s got to mature a little bit and he knows that,” said Tuberville.  “He hasn’t played that much – especially on this level.”

But Green will get his chance.  Ti’on still has three years remaining to make an impact at the school – he claims – that his mother ultimately selected.

“Maybe he took it that way, but he still had the last say,” said Strickland.

“I don’t regret it at all,” Ti’on told me with a grin.  “I love it here.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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