In years past, when they weren't known as the NFL Draft Killers that they are today, the Cincinnati Bengals were often guilty of drafting "square players" and attempted to fit them into "round holes". What do I mean by that? Simply put, the team drafted talented (and sometimes troubled) players and tried to coach them up to be an effective NFL player at a different position than the one they excelled at in college.
Another way to look at it is that they just prefer players who are versatile. The offensive and defensive lines seem to have the most frequent examples in the Marvin Lewis era. On the offensive line, Lewis and line coach Paul Alexander love players that can play multiple spots on the line. Currently, Mike Pollak is perceived to be able to play center and guard, Tanner Hawkinson can play all over the line and we saw Andrew Whitworth play effective at guard and tackle last season. One can look at previous examples like Stacy Andrews, Jason Shirley and a myriad of others as failed experiments here.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Lewis' staff has certain preferences as well. With safeties, there isn't always a true designation between "free" and "strong" when referring to position. Both must be able to help in run support and the ability to cover someone in the slot is often preferred as well. In pass-rushing specialists, they look for players that are able to do it from multiple spots--a linebacker who can put their hand down in the dirt, or a defensive end that can kick inside to tackle on obvious passing downs.
There are other examples at other positions, and this draft has some very versatile players. The top perceived needs for the Bengals this year are guard, center, defensive end and cornerback, in no particular order. Secondarily, running back, safety, tackle, quarterback and linebacker. Yes, that pretty much covers every position, but immediate starters aren't necessarily a must for 2014. The Bengals could kill two birds with one stone with some of the draft's more versatile players. While some prospects are being looked at for other positions because of athleticism, size or other concerns, the players mentioned below seem to have the traits to make them truly versatile at the NFL level.
Zack Martin, Notre Dame: Unfortunately for Martin, he has been lost in the shuffle with a very deep offensive line class. A captain at Notre Dame, Martin was a very good left tackle in 2014, but the knock on him is size and lateral movement. The size criticism is kind of humorous, given that Martin is 6'4" and 310 pounds, but it seems to be more of an arm-length issue. Going into the early parts of the pre-draft process, Martin was looked at exclusively as a guard at the NFL level. but a strong showing at the Senior Bowl where he also worked out at tackle raised eyebrows. Sounds like Martin could/should be a solid NFL tackle and a Pro Bowl-type guard. Projected: Top-20.
Marcus Martin, USC: Many draftniks prefer Weston Richburg and/or Travis Swanson to Martin as a center prospect this year. There is validity there because there is more tape on those two than there is on Martin. He declared after his junior season and with only one year of starting at center to review. In his first two seasons (including as a true freshman), Martin started 20 games at left guard and was solid for the Trojans. The move to center in 2013 paid off as he was All-Pac-12 First Team. He has athleticism, versatility and a mean streak in him. The questions revolve around his age and limited experience as a starting center. It's likely that he could play guard in the NFL, if needed in a pinch, even with center being his primary position. Projected: Round Two
Billy Turner, South Dakota State: Turner is one of those small school project guys that coaches love. He has the size and talent, but further technique development and a decision on his NFL position are needed. Turner played both right and left tackle in college to the tune of many individual accolades for his efforts. There are just questions if he is better suited at tackle or guard in the NFL and many believe that he should be placed inside with his skill set. Either way, it sounds like he could be an able, if not good player at either spot. Projected: Round Three
Lamarcus Joyner, CB/S, Florida State: Full disclosure: I like what I've seen and read on this kid. He has been labeled similarly to boxer Floyd Mayweather, which is something along the lines of being the most physical player in the draft, pound-for-pound. At 5'8" and 185 pounds, Joyner had to enter as a corner, but he hits like a linebacker. He played corner and safety throughout his tenure with the Seminoles and was a big part of one of the nation's most dominating defenses. Defensive coordinators will have to get creative with him, but I'd imagine that Joyner would be a fun player to coach--especially if he blossoms into a really productive player. Projected: Round Two
Keith McGill, CB, Utah: This kid has been a late-riser because of his size and the league's infatuation with having big corners. If the Seattle Seahawks taught us anything last year, it's that having size and physicality with one's defensive backs is a good thing. Here's the thing: according to our own Cody Tewmey, McGill isn't a strong run-supporter. It's odd that a 6'3", 210 pound corner wouldn't help in that respect, but it seems to be his M.O. He's very athletic, but raw at corner and will need to be coached up on technique. Why is he versatile? Because McGill was initially recruited to Utah to play free safety and did so for five games after transferring there. Injuries set him back until last season where he finally made the switch to corner. If McGill struggles picking up the finer points of being an NFL cornerback, he could be looked at back at free safety because of his size. Projected: Rounds 2-3
Dion Bailey, S/LB, USC: The Bengals are already doing their due diligence on Bailey, as they met with him recently. I won't go into too much detail here about Bailey's abilities because our own Cody Tewmey wrote up an excellent scouting report on him recently. However, Bailey could play a role similar to Taylor Mays as a "rover", cover slot men, play deep as a safety and help out on special teams. Projected: Rounds 3-4
Demetrius Wright, S, USC: Wright is an under-the-radar guy who will either go in the late rounds of the draft or latch on to a team as an undrafted free agent. I was fortunate enough to meet and briefly interview him in January at the NFLPA Bowl and he talked about his versatility first-hand. The Trojans lined him up in a number of spots on defense and used him both as a corner and safety. He can play special teams and was ardent that he is able in run support as well. His 4.43 time in the 40-yard dash opened eyes as well. Projected: Rounds 6-Undrafted
Linebackers and Defensive Ends:
Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA: Though he will likely be gone by the time the Bengals are on the clock and fits more in a 3-4 defensive scheme, Barr is definitely forceful and disruptive. He's still a bit of a project, given that he was a running back in his early college years (imagine a 6'5", 255-pound running back, by the way), but he is looking to learn the nuances of the NFL's outside linebacker position while also putting his hand in the dirt and getting after the quarterback. When a player has 23.5 sacks and 41.5 tackles for loss his last two seasons in a competitive college conference, you find a way to get him on the field. Projected: Top-15
Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State: To steal a Mike Mayock phrase, Shazier is "scheme-diverse" and will translate to a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. Size is a concern with Shazier, but speed most definitely isn't. As a Buckeye, Shazier played inside and outside and they allowed him free reign to get after the quarterback. In the defensive scheme that the Bengals employ, I'd almost like to see Shazier given this same kind of free reign to roam the field and fly around to make plays. The worry is that he might be a "boom or bust" player, but is worth the chance in the later part of the first round. Projected: Round One
Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB/DE, Georgia Tech: Attaochu might best project as a 3-4 linebacker, but could also be looked at as a situational rusher in a 4-3 defense. He has the unfortunate "'tweener" stigma that I wrote about a few months back, being a tiny bit undersized for an every-down NFL defensive end, but has the size for an outside linebacker spot. Personally speaking, if you can get a niche rotational pass-rusher like Attaochu after addressing other needs, I don't see that as a bad plan. Especially for a guy that had 22 sacks in his last two seasons combined. Projected: Round Two
Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU: Unlike Barr and Attaochu, Van Noy isn't the pass-rusher extraordinaire that those two are. He is one of those players who does a lot of things pretty well, but nothing absolutely outstanding. What is outstanding is his overall athleticism that allows him to play in multiple spots on the field. Overall, he might be a better fit for a 3-4 defense, but good NFL defensive coordinators will find a way to get him to be productive. Van Noy is likely to be a solid player at the pro level, but never a superstar. Projected: Rounds 2-3
Trent Murphy, DE/OLB: I was privileged to see a lot of this young man out here on the West (best) Coast and he seemed to be everywhere when I watched the Cardinal. He primarily played outside linebacker, but still racked up 15 sacks last season without being a true hand-in-the-dirt pass rusher. In the early pre-draft process, teams wanted to see him at end and he looked uncomfortable.Murphy will be a project wherever he lands, but could be a nice value pick after many of the top defensive ends are gone. Projected: Round Three
Trevor Reilly, OLB/DE, Utah: His touching personal life story with his daughter aside, Reilly is an intriguing guy. He was very productive as a pass-rusher and what he doesn't have in overall athleticism, he makes up for in motor and drive. He had 100 tackles last season to go along with 8.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. He already has experience playing as a strong side linebacker and defensive end in college, so his transition to either style of defensive should come more naturally than some of the other prospects attempting to do the same. Projected: Rounds 2-3
Telvin Smith, OLB/MLB, Florida State: Unlike almost every other player that I listed in this area, Smith does not bring pass-rushing abilities to the table. Instead, he is a player that can play any linebacker spot on a team, and in college, he showed that he could do that well. He was an interchangeable piece in that dominant Seminoles defense last season and, though he was a star player, wasn't afraid to contribute on special teams. He's very athletic and has good closing speed, but his size is a concern. Simply put, 220-pound middle linebackers don't exist in today's NFL and they are rare on the outside as well. He is one of the lightest outside linebacker prospects this year, so he will need to add weight and pull rank on special teams early on, but he could be an interesting rotational/back-up player for a team looking to get one for more than one linebacker position. Projected: Rounds 4-5