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Walker: NFL Combine Preview for AFC North Teams

As you are all well aware, the NFL Combine begins on Thursday, and many coaches and scouts will get a good look at players that they like already and will give them a chance to find some talent in players that aren't necessarily well known right now.

The combine also gives college players a chance to raise their draft stock. Players, like Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, will have the ability to prove to teams that they're worthy of a high draft pick, or of being drafted at all.

ESPN's James Walker lays out some positions and players that AFC North teams, including the Bengals, may want to pay close attention to while in Indianapolis.

Pass-rushers and cornerbacks are also at a premium in the AFC North. Baltimore, the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals all need help finding edge rushers -- either at defensive end or outside linebacker. It wouldn't be a shock if all three teams added pass-rushing help in the first round this year. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are most in the market for cornerback depth. So I'm also watching for prospects in the secondary who can potentially drop to the end of the first, second and third rounds.

The Bengals lucked out last season when they acquired Carlos Dunlap in the second round. Even though Dunlap didn't play much in the beginning of the season, he ended up starting, due to injuries and suspensions, at defensive end and led the team in sacks with 9.5 by the end of the season. His 9.5 sacks also broke Justin Smith's franchise record for rookie sacks.

It's currently unclear if defensive ends Antwan Odom and Robert Geathers will be back on the team next season. If they are, the Bengals may not need to look for a defensive end early in the draft but if they aren't, and the Bengals still want to continue the Michael Johnson at linebacker experiment, then the Bengals may hope that Da'Quan Bowers falls to the No. 4 pick so they can draft him in the first round.

Walker also talked quarterbacks.

Also with the Bengals, will they make a strong effort to look into rookie quarterbacks? Cincinnati for years has put off drafting Palmer's successor, but never have things been so urgent. Although it would be somewhat of a surprise, the Bengals can take one of the top quarterbacks in this year's draft with the No. 4 overall pick. Cincinnati also can look at quarterbacks at the top of the second round, which seems more likely. Teams can request certain prospects to interview individually at the com

Obviously, the Palmer issue is on the top when it comes to the Bengals long list of things to fix. However, if the Bengals can't fix the situation, they may need to look to the draft to find a replacement, especially if there isn't a new CBA in place by the March 4 deadline. Could the Bengals possibly draft a quarterback with their No. 4 overall pick? Draft analysts, including Mel Kiper, think that Newton has worked his way into a possible top-five pick and some mock drafts have him going No. 1 overall to the Panthers or No. 3 to the Bills. If he impresses the Bengals during the combine, and Carson sticks to his guns, I wouldn't be surprised at all if the Bengals decided to take a chance on Newton with their first-round pick.

I'm not saying it's what they should or shouldn't do. I'm just saying that I wouldn't be surprised.

Walker also talked about the possibility that, because all the coaches and scouts will be together in Indianapolis, some interesting trade offers involving Palmer may rear their heads in the next couple weeks.

Finally, he spoke of free agency.

Also keep an eye on free agency. We might get updates this week from pending free agents such as Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor, Cleveland fullback Lawrence Vickers and Cincinnati cornerback Johnathan Joseph and tailback Cedric Benson. There also could be updates on negotiations with AFC North players under the franchise tag: Baltimore defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley and Cleveland kicker Phil Dawson.

The Bengals have until Thursday to use their franchise tag but it's fairly clear now that they won't use it this year. Because of this, Benson and Joseph will both be unrestricted free agents. If the Bengals do sign a deal with either Benson or Joseph, it could come soon after they check out the talent level at the combine.