The Big Four
By GEOFF HOBSON
February 20, 2009
INDIANAPOLIS _ The Big Four have already passed Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander's playground test.
"I size them up," he said of all the NFL prospects at this week's NFL scouting combine. "And if they can kick my butt on the playground, then they pass. Then you go to the next thing and project how they'll do against Robert Geathers in practice. If they can do that, the next thing is how you think they'll do against Albert Haynesworth and Dwight Freeney. And if you think they can beat them, then you've got a first-round draft pick."
But then there are the two guys that Alexander rejected out of hand during a series of first interviews Wednesday night. He's looking for athletes with a good attitude and they've got to be smart.
"Some kids are smart but don't get football," he said. "Some get football but dont really love pro football. I ask them who are their favorite NFL players (at their positions) and I talked to two kids last night that couldn't name one NFL offensive lineman. I told them, 'When I was coming out of college, I knew the name of every NFL left tackle. A negative? That's a reject."
But it sounds like The Big Four have passed that test, too, because Alexander and assistant Bob Surace pretty much agree that Virginia's Eugene Monroe, Baylor's Jason Smith, Mississippi's Michael Oher, and Alabama's Andre Smith are going in the first round.
"It's just a matter of who likes who," said Alexander, who refuses to say much more beyond the fact that he won't tip his hand.
They are extremely proud that the Bengals stunned the world in 2002 when they selected Arizona State left tackle Levi Jones with the 10th pick. Jones turns 30 in training camp and with a series of injuries that has taken big chunks out of two of the last three seasons, his questionable status highlights the most uncertain offseason status the line has faced since Alexander started three guys at new positions in the 1996 opener.
When his players have approached him since the season to ask where they're playing in '09, he tells them they won't know until after the April 25-26 draft.
But don't forget how good Jones was before his knee injuries piled up and how well he protected Carson Palmer's blind side in the sack-happy AFC North.
Jones came out of a similar draft, where three left tackles (Mike Williams and Brian McKinney) went in the top ten.
"Levi wasn't going to go past 13," Alexander said. "The only thing with him is that he had a very unorthodox pass set he was taught in college. People thought it was him, but I talked to his college line coach and saw it was him. We thought we could change it and we did."
There is spreading speculation that The Big Four are going to go in the top ten and each was asked in their media availability Thursday how they would feel about being the No. 1 pick.
The consensus through Lucas Oil Stadium Thursday seemed to be that Monroe and Jason Smith are the top two right now, Oher is a huge X factor, and Andre Smith is dropping because he is looking more and more like a right tackle.
Alexander scoffed and invoked his current left guard, Andrew Whitworth, a guy he says can play anywhere but center.
"All I kept hearing was Whitworth couldn't play tackle,' said Alexander of the club's second-round pick in 2006, "and then he couldn't play left tackle. He's fine anywhere you put him."
Whitworth holds a big key in the draft. If they think he can play left tackle and they can get a guy that helps them elsewhere, or if some of these guys are already gone, then he'll be the starting left tackle.
But no matter what, Alexander and Surace are looking for athletes because first and foremost, he says, they are looking for pass protectors. When they undergo drills Saturday, Alexander is looking at some pretty specific things.
"You're looking for the kind of guys that can accelerate differently than the guy who has the same speed. You have to be able to accelerate differently," Alexander said. "They say the 40 (yard dash) isn't a good test for a lineman, but I don't know about that. A lot of our players have ended up in the upper end of 40 speed. If guy can't run, I don't like them."
Four-time Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson ran well enough to clock 5.2 seconds. That's what last year's rookie left tackle Anthony Collins did in his pro day, which helped him because Alexander recalls him running only a 5.5 at the combine.
"Mike Goff and Richie Braham and Steiny (Eric Steinbach) could run," he said of former Bengals guards and centers. "And Levi could run, too."
The Big Four couldn't run from the media, where the most impressive guy had to be Jason Smith. He was also supposedly the biggest hit at the weigh-in at a very solid 6-5, 309 pounds.
There has been concern in some corners that he doesn't have a huge frame as befitting a former tight end that made the switch to right tackle as a red-shirt sophomore. But Alexander again pointed to Braham and Steinbach.
"That's a positive to me that he was a former tight end. So were Richie and Steiny," he said. "They're athletes."
He's even got an athletic nick name.
"I got it when I was younger and I just kind of carried it with me," Smith said. "A friend of mine at college came home with me and he heard my friends calling me that and he brought it to college. Over the years, I've developed that."
Smith is also a college graduate and so proud of it that he knows the date. May 17, 2008.
"It's very important for my grandmother, for me and for the program," Smith said. "I wanted to graduate. But overall I did it so fast because I was ready to get to the NFL."
Smith knows Collins from the Big 12 and struck up a relationship with him before the Bengals took him in the fourth round last year. He hasn't talked to him since the season, but remembers some of his advice and calls him a friend.
"We developed a line of communication last year. he told me to stay focused and play hard," Smith said. "Don't worry about anything that's going on. Just play football.'"
Smith made pretty persuasive pitch why he hopes he's gone before the Bengals pick No. 6.
"I'm tough, I'm physical, and I have a great attitude. I show up every day willing to work. And I'm productive. And I have 12 games that shows it. And I have 12 weeks of practice that also shows it," he said.
" So if you want to see a guy that practices hard, plays hard, look at my practice or look at my games -- you won't be able to tell the difference," Smith said. "I'll be going full speed, and every day you walk in there I'll have a smile on my face, ready to go to work. There's a lot of technique involved. You don't just walk out there and hit somebody. But once you get your hands on a guy and grab him and squeeze him and slam him, or whatever goes on20in the trenches, it's a great feeling."
If Jason Smith was the most impressive and Monroe the most polished and Andre Smith the most mysterious (he wouldn't talk about his agent problems or bowl game suspension), then Oher was the most interesting.
He has the most notoriety of The Big Four because his life story has been documented in the best-selling book, The Blind Side, but it turns out he hasn't read it.
"Hearing what a lot of people say about it, I think it was fairly accurate. I think it was a good look though," he said. "(Author Michael Lewis) talked to be about a lot about the stuff, and went over a lot of things, and I felt I didn't need to read it."
Oher has been getting plenty of questions about his background before an affluent Memphis couple adopted him out of one of America's harshest ghettos. Before he was 15, he barely went to school, but he also doesn't understand the relevance of it all now.
"Hurt me? Like what?" asked Oher of his background. "How could it hurt me? What do you mean by that? I think it should be all about the performance on the field and how I play as a player. If I keep doing the things I do, it shouldn't hurt me one bit."
Oher has the rep for being shy and non-communicative with people he doesn't know, but handled himself adroitly amid Thursday's media throng.
"I was on the dean's list my sophomore year," he said. "I was on the honor roll a couple of times. I'm a smart guy. I'm very smart."
Alexander, smart enough not to tip his hand, already has one thing in common with Oher.
He didn't read the book, either.