Smith Ready To Learn New Position With Old Team

The last time that Andre Smith played guard, he was a 9th grader at Huffman High School in Birmingham, Alabama.

“We had a pretty good lineman named Dominic Lee my freshman year of high school and he was the man so I played guard next to him,” said Smith.

Andre Smith

Fifteen years later, including eight as a starting right tackle in the NFL, Andre is preparing to play guard again. He’s the likely replacement in the Bengals starting lineup for Kevin Zeitler who signed as a free agent with Cleveland.

“I think Andre has a chance to be terrific at guard,” said offensive line coach Paul Alexander. “He’s getting to start from the beginning this year with the base techniques and then learn the offense as he goes. If we all of the sudden picked him up a week before the season and said, ‘Go play right guard,’ I don’t think he could do it. But going through this progression I think he’ll be fine.”

“Everything happens a lot faster at guard – that’s one thing that I’ve noticed – but it’s been a fun experience transitioning from tackle to guard,” said Smith. “Physically everything happens a little faster and mentally you have to think about a lot more than you do at tackle.”

Andre will be tested at training camp by trying to block five-time Pro Bowler Geno Atkins.

“I’m fortunate to go up against Geno every day,” said Smith. “It helps me prepare for the other really good defensive lineman in the NFL. It forces me to work on my technique and make sure that I have everything down pat.”

Smith spent his first seven NFL seasons in Cincinnati after being the sixth overall pick in the 2009 draft. The Minnesota Vikings signed Andre to a one-year free agent deal in 2016, but a triceps injury ended his season after four games.

After Andrew Whitworth and Zeitler left Cincinnati as free agents this spring, the Bengals brought Smith back on a one-year, $3.25 million deal.

“It didn’t surprise me that they were interested,” said Smith. “There was a need after Zeitler and Whit left and there was an opportunity for myself. I know the organization and they know me, I know the town, and I’m happy to be back.”

Alexander says that the Bengals coaching staff and front office were in agreement that Smith’s 6’4”, 325 pound frame make him an excellent candidate to transition to guard.

“I think we all kind of saw that,” said Alexander. “We’ve always had a big, strong, explosive right guard here with guys like Bobby Williams and Kevin Zeitler. Andre is a big, strong, powerful man.”

“I just love when Andre’s in our huddle,” said offensive coordinator Ken Zampese. “I’m not particularly concerned where he plays as long as he’s in our huddle. I really like him personally, I like his production, and I like that he’s done it before. And I like his 35-inch reach.”

Smith’s position on the offensive line is new, but his current team is anything but.

“It’s been great,” Andre told me. “Everybody has been very receptive and they appreciate having me back. And I’m happy to be back.

“It’s like I never left.”

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Uzomah Looks To Pick Up Where He Left Off

The Bengals’ 2017 season doesn’t begin until September 10th, but don’t tell that to tight end C.J. Uzomah.

On New Year’s Day, he got the calendar year off to a flying start when he caught his first career touchdown pass in a season-ending win over Baltimore.


“It was something that I was hoping to get out of the way earlier but I was elated to end the season with a touchdown catch and a victory,” said Uzomah. “I felt like that was an unbelievable way to start the year. We come back knowing that we won our first game of 2017.”

The 24-year-old played an increased role last year as he finished with 25 catches for 234 yards (9.4 ypc), despite missing five games with a calf injury.

“I have some things to work on – blocking assignments and being fundamentally sound in everything that I do – but I felt like I really came along in my second year,” said Uzomah. “In my first year I thought that I was timid and played a little slower not knowing where everybody was going to be. But last year I was able to unload and kind of relax, let loose, and have fun out there.”

Since an injured back limited Pro Bowler Tyler Eifert to eight games last season, it was largely up to Uzomah and fellow 2015 draft pick Tyler Kroft to carry the load at the tight end position.

“It was just next man up,” said Uzomah. “That’s the mentality that we have. We understand that when one person goes down, somebody else has to step up. Whoever is next in line has to know what to do.”

Uzomah, by his own admission, remains a work in progress after playing in a spread offense at Auburn that did not include a conventional tight end.

“I’m trying to work on my hands – whether it’s as a blocker or getting off the jam,” C.J. told me. “I’m working on my hips a little bit too. One thing that (tight ends) Coach (Jonathan) Hayes is emphasizing with me is hat placement for blocks. He says your hands and feet have improved tremendously but work on getting your hat where it’s supposed to be and everything else will come into place. Those are the main three things that I am working on.

“I’ve also been working with Ben (Creamer) from Ignition APG with the boxing and hand fighting and he does a great job with that. I did it a little bit last year but not as much as I will this upcoming year. I think that helps tremendously and translates to the field a lot.”

In addition to the hard work he’s put in this offseason, Uzomah has indulged his passion for travel.

“I ended up going to Dublin and Amsterdam,” he said. “My girlfriend is in the Master’s program at Auburn so she went to Dublin and I met her in Amsterdam after her program was over. Then we went back to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day which was absolutely insane. That was a nice thing to check off the bucket list for sure. I also went to Colorado a few times and Jackson Hole in Wyoming. I went to Boston for a little bit.  I kind of traveled all over to see my friends and explore the world.”

Having the time and resources to travel is one of the benefits of being an NFL player – a career that Uzomah wished for from an early age.

“I’ve been playing football since I was six,” he said. “So getting that phone call saying that you’ve been drafted was a dream come true. I’ve been watching the NFL my whole life thinking, ‘Oh man, I want to be the guy on that field having the whole city behind my back.’ I’m embracing it and it’s a great opportunity.”

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Alex Erickson Returns

In the Bengals’ first 49 seasons, they have only had three players lead the AFC in kickoff return average: Tremain Mack in 1999, Adam Jones in 2014, and Alex Erickson last year.

Alex Erickson kick return

Erickson’s 27.9 average ranked second in the NFL behind Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson (31.7) and was the second-best single season mark in team history behind Jones’ 31.3.

“I think it was a point of pride for the entire unit,” said Erickson. “I don’t like to say it was my number, because it was our number. There are 10 guys blocking in front of me and we all have to do our job. It’s a collective unit and we take great pride in trying to be the best in the NFL.

“It was kind of a tale of two seasons with our return units. It was slow to start and not up to our standard and then we really got going and started playing to our potential. It showed in the second half of the season.”

The undrafted rookie wide receiver also led the team in punt return average (7.0) and finished with 6 catches for 71 yards.

“I feel good about it,” Alex said about his first season. “Obviously as a team we didn’t achieve what we know we can achieve, but personally I felt like I stepped into a role and embraced it.”

“He’s a little bit more than everything that you think he is,” said wide receivers coach James Urban. “He’s a good person and he has this choirboy look to him but he knows how to play and does it well.”

But despite his success in 2016, Erickson’s role is not guaranteed for the upcoming season. First round draft pick John Ross was primarily selected for his receiving ability, but he also returned four kickoffs for touchdowns at Washington. And fourth round pick Josh Malone adds another big, fast target to the wide receiver room.

“You don’t really know who they’re going to draft and there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Erickson. “They’re part of the Bengals now and they’re one of us. As a competitor and a professional athlete, if the room is deeper, everybody is going to be pushing and getting better. That’s good for the Bengals.”

“These guys all know what the reality is,” said Urban. “They’re no dummies. When they are standing back and watching the other guys take reps and see what they can do, they’re like, ‘Whoa.’ So it raises everybody’s level but they’re constantly coaching each other. There’s no bickering, there’s no complaining and they can’t wait to high-five their buddy when they see them make a play. It’s exactly what you want and it’s pretty cool to see.”

Erickson is no stranger to fighting for a spot on the team. He went from being a walk-on at Wisconsin to leading the Badgers in receptions in his last two seasons and he was the only college free agent to make the Bengals opening day roster last year.

“Like I said last year as an undrafted free agent – you’re going to have to compete for your spot,” Alex told me. “Now after a successful first year, you’re still going to have to compete for your spot. That’s the NFL. It’s the best of the best. There are a lot of great players out there and you have to bring it every single day.”

“The kid never ceases to raise my eyebrows,” said Urban. “He can play inside, he can play outside, and he can play all three positions at any time. He can run all day, he knows the subtleties of how to play, he’s competitive, and he’s fiery.”

And Erickson’s successful rookie season has made folks proud in his hometown of Darlington, Wisconsin.

“The fan base and the support that I have coming from a smaller community is pretty special,” said Erickson. “It’s something that I never take for granted and I appreciate all of the love and support. The amount of support that they show never ceases to amaze me. They follow the Bengals now and it’s good to get some orange-and-black in green-and-gold country.”

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Clements Switches Number, Sets Goal

Having your number retired is one of the greatest honors an athlete can receive.

Having somebody ask to wear your number is pretty cool too.

Clements in spring game

Junior safety Malik Clements is switching from #24 to #4 this season – the number worn for the past four seasons by Zach Edwards who recently signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“That was my high school number,’ said Clements. “I asked Zach if I could have it because he’s pretty well-known around here and he let me have it. Now I have to live up to the number.”

Edwards left quite a legacy, starting 46 games at Cincinnati, grabbing eight interceptions, and finishing fourth in school history with 381 career tackles. Zach says that Clements is more than capable of filling his shoes in the Bearcats’ secondary.

“The crazy thing is, I’ve been telling people since Malik got here that he’s probably our best safety,” said Edwards. “I think he’s better than me – he just didn’t understand the game as well.”

“Zach was one of those guys that I looked up to,” said Clements. “He took me under his wing when I first got here and I appreciate how he was like a big brother to me.”

The name will be different on the back of the uniform, but it appears that #4 will remain one of Cincinnati’s starting safeties as Clements worked with the first team defense throughout most of spring football.

Earning a starting spot is one of the goals he has posted on his wall.

“It’s a motivational thing,” said Clements. “I have a bunch of goals listed to help push me. Every day I wake up to it to remind myself that no matter how I’m feeling that day I need to keep grinding.

“Becoming a starter is my main goal. There are other objectives like being All-Conference, but my main objective right now is to become a full-time starter.”

“He’s taken the bull by the horns,” said safeties coach Jon Tenuta. “I like his mentality and the way he approaches practice. He does the little things well and he’s a leader by example. He probably doesn’t talk as much as I would like him to talk, but that’s just his personality. He does all the things that we ask him to do.”

“He’s definitely a guy that has some energy to him,” said head coach Luke Fickell. “He tackles very well and we’re expecting big things out of him.”

Clements played in every game last season, led the Bearcats in special teams tackles, and made his first career start against Miami (Ohio). But the Danville, VA native says there is plenty of room for improvement.

“I don’t think I was consistent enough,” Malik told me. “I’m pretty hard on myself so I don’t think I had a good season last year. I started off pretty slow. I started to pick it up a little at the end, but overall I didn’t think I did a very good job last year.

“There’s a lot of stuff I still need to work on. I guess my biggest strength is that I play hard. I don’t really take any plays off. I like to give it my all.”

He has that in common with the previous #4 on the Cincinnati roster.

“Zach knows that I’m a competitor or else he wouldn’t let me have the number,” said Clements. “I’m going to live up to it.”

“I made sure he was going to wear it,” said Edwards.

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Bengals Add Another Burner at WR in Tennessee’s Malone

The fastest wide receiver on the Bengals roster is obvious – first round draft pick John Ross who set a new 40-yard dash record at the NFL Scouting Combine this year when he was clocked at 4.22 seconds.

So who is the second-fastest?

Josh Malone

It appears to be Josh Malone who was selected in the fourth round with the 128th overall pick, a selection the Bengals obtained from the Vikings when they traded down in the second round on Friday night.

“If you go by 40-yard dash times coming out of college he may be,” said receivers coach James Urban. “He ran a 4.39 and tested well. One of our missions is to get faster across the board and I think we did that with Ross and Malone.”

Ironically, since receivers run the 40-yard dash in alphabetical order at the Combine, Malone had a good view of Ross’ record-setting sprint.

“His 40-yard dash happened right after I ran mine,” said Malone. “I was talking to somebody and I looked over and he was running and then I looked up the big screen. Twitter was going crazy. I was like, ‘Did someone just do something crazy?’ That’s how I found out he ran a 4.22.”

Malone led Tennessee with 50 catches for 972 yards last year and broke the Vols’ single-season record by averaging 19.4 yards per catch.

“Last year he didn’t miss one practice,” said Tennessee head coach Butch Jones. “He didn’t miss one rep in a game. He was a mainstay for us at the wide receiver position.”

“He’s been well-coached,” said Urban. “Some of these college receivers that have really big production – they just put them out there and let them go. You say, ‘Geez, his talent is great but he doesn’t know how to play wide receiver.’ This kid has been well-coached and he’s only three years out of high school. He’s a young buck man. I can’t wait to get him out there.”

Malone, who turned 21 last month, declared for the NFL Draft after his junior season.

“I think he’s a guy that will flash plays on a daily basis because of his physical tool set, and then he’ll just get better, and better, and better,” said Urban.

“I think his best football lies ahead of him,” said Jones. “Just look at his growth and development starting back in high school and then here at Tennessee.

“He’s a great kid. He’s got tremendous character. He’s going to be the first one in the building and the last to leave. He’s going to do his due diligence as a football player to understand his role in the offense and understand multiple positions at the receiver spot. He’s going to study film all of the time and I think he’ll be a true pro.”

With their top three receivers back in A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell, and Tyler Boyd, along with second year pros Cody Core and Alex Erickson, the wide receiver room figures to be highly competitive with the additions of Ross and Malone.

“The guys that are our kind of guys will not shy away from that competition,” said Urban. “The cream will rise to the top and if they’re not competitive guys and they start counting spots in line and don’t handle their business they’ll get exposed. We want guys that are reliable, accountable, and competitive.”

“I feel like I’m a big target for a balanced wide receiver,” said Malone. “I pride myself on being technically sound and getting open. So hopefully I can be a big help for them on third down or if they need a big guy in the red zone to go get it. I can be another one of those guys for them. I’m just grateful for this opportunity.”

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Bengals Add Willis To D-Line In 3rd Round

As he sat at home in Kansas City, Jordan Willis thought there was a chance that he would be drafted in the second half of the first round.

“Me and my agent kept an open mind about what could happen,” said Willis. “He gave me a range of (picks) 19 to 45.”

Jordan Willis

As it turned out, the Bengals were able to land the Kansas State defensive end in the third round with the 73rd overall pick.

“He was in our conversation all day today,” said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. “Both the coaches and the scouts had him graded above where we took him. We feel like it was great value.”

“I don’t know exactly why I got to the point that I’m at, and why some teams passed on me,” said Willis. “Some of the players that did go ahead of me kind of shocked me.

“I’ve lived in the world of ‘chip on my shoulder.’ I’ve been there at Kansas State, I’ve been there at the high school that I went to – that’s been my whole life so it’s not really any different.”

“We really feel fortunate to be able to pick Jordan Willis here,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “Throughout his career at Kansas State he’s been a big producer for them and then I think he had an outstanding end-of-season bowl game, Senior Bowl, and then what he did at Indianapolis to confirm some of his physical tools.”

At 6’4”, 258 pounds, Willis ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any defensive lineman at the Combine as he was timed at 4.53 seconds. The only player at his position to top his 39-inch vertical jump was the number one overall pick Myles Garrett.

“I try to look at a lot of the guys before I go to the Combine even if it’s just a little snippet,” said Guenther. “But when you go there, three or four guys at each position catch your eye and you come back here and go to the tape and really study the guy. That’s what we did with him.”

Willis earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors as a senior as he led the conference with 11.5 sacks while adding 17.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles.

“He plays with good hand placement, a flat back, nice eyes, good leverage, good knee bend – he’s got good fundamentals,” said defensive line coach Jacob Burney.

“The thing that jumps off the tape is just how relentless the guy plays,” said Guenther. “He’s a no-nonsense kid, he comes to work every day, and he takes care of his body. There are no marks on this guy. He’s our kind of guy.”

“Some guys are polished when they get to the NFL and some guys aren’t,” said Willis. “I’m still polishing up my game every day to be the absolute best that I can be.”

The Bengals are hoping that Willis can contribute immediately by moving into the rotation on the opposite side of Carlos Dunlap at right defensive end.

“He’s going to start from the back and work his way in just like all of the guys that come in here,” said Guenther. “But even having an extra guy at defensive end takes some of the snaps off the guys that we have and makes everybody fresh. He’s not just a pass rusher. He can play all downs. He’s a good guy to have in your arsenal.”

“They’re bringing me in obviously to get after the passer so that’s what I need to focus on,” said Willis.

Willis, who turns 22 next Tuesday, played mostly on the left side at Kansas State, but the Bengals say he should have no trouble switching sides.

“He played mostly on the left, but he played up and down the line,” said Burney. “He’s been inside and he’s been on the right side. He’s got some versatility.

“He’s a student of the game. He really studies the tackles and he’s relentless. There’s tremendous upside with this guy.”

And after finishing third in Kansas State history with 26 career sacks, Willis is determined to prove that he should have been drafted higher.

“I do think I’m underrated,” he said. “But sometimes that’s the hand you’re dealt. You can’t change it, you just have to work from here. I’ve been there at Kansas State and I’m used to hard work. That’s what I think I bring to the table.”

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Ross, Bengals Run Into History

John Ross’ life changed in 4.22 seconds.

That was the wide receiver’s time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, breaking the record of 4.24 seconds set by Chris Johnson in 2008.

(Watch his 40-yard dash here)

“I was thankful for the attention because it was positive,” said Ross. “I think it got me a little more notice – not just from fans but from teams.”

“4.22 – enough said,” said NFL Network’s Mike Mayock and the Bengals finished the sentence Thursday night when they took him with the ninth pick in the NFL Draft.

But the downside to that attention is that people assume that Ross is strictly a deep threat, despite having 81 catches for 1,150 yards and 17 touchdowns last season at Washington.

“I still feel like I fight that every single day just because people don’t believe in me in that way,” said Ross. “Just revert back to the film. A lot of my touchdowns were in the red zone and a lot of teams took away the deep ball with cover two coverage. In our offense that made us convert a lot of our routes, so it made me hone in on the intermediate routes and work harder on that aspect of the game.”

“It’s impossible not to talk about his speed when he ran the fastest 40 time ever right?” asked Bengals receivers coach James Urban. “But he can stop – that’s equally important. If you can go that fast and stop and transition…then you have the ability not to just go over the top but to separate underneath. That’s where he jumps out on film.”

John Ross

Ross visited Paul Brown Stadium two weeks ago to visit with Bengals coaches and came away thinking that he could be drafted by Cincinnati.

“I got that vibe when I was there,” he said. “I called my agent immediately and told him how great I felt about that job interview. I told him, ‘Don’t be surprised on draft day if the phone rings and I’ll be a Cincinnati Bengal.’

“I expected to go in the top ten. I felt like I have top ten talent. I felt like the only thing that was holding me back was the speculation about my injuries.”

Ross missed the 2015 season with a torn ACL and had surgery after the Combine to repair a labrum tear in his shoulder. The 21-year-old says he’s on schedule to be ready for training camp and the knee injury obviously hasn’t slowed him down.

“I feel like after I tore my knee I got much faster,” said Ross. “I started to work on leg muscles that I didn’t get a chance to work on before and my trainers kept telling me, ‘You’re going to be faster.’ I kept looking at them like they had something on their face because that just didn’t sound right.”

Those trainers were proven right when Ross posted his record 40-yard dash time at the Combine and it could have earned him a highly unusual prize.

Adidas had offered an island to any prospect that broke Chris Johnson’s record while wearing the company’s cleats and then agreeing to endorse Adidas shoes. Ross was wearing Nike shoes and says he doesn’t regret it.

“Not at all,” he said. “Nike is an amazing brand and I’ve been wearing Nike all of my life. I feel like the island was for people who were focused on something that seemed unattainable. That wasn’t my goal or my focus. My goal was to go in and compete and to run the fastest time at the combine.”

Despite his record-setting sprint in Indianapolis, Ross is not a former track star. He only ran track for one year in high school before quitting the sport.

“This might sound funny, but I definitely didn’t like running,” said Ross. “I felt like in track they had us out there running for no reason and it didn’t seem fun.”

But it’s very enjoyable on the way to the end zone.

“It feels good to know that you can run by people and not be caught,” he said. “I think it’s something that everybody would like. I’m thankful.”

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