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Bengals may like Za'Darius Smith as next DL project

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The Bengals like versatile lineman who they can get later in the NFL draft, and Za'Darius Smith could develop into that kind of player in the NFL.

Photo By Jason Marcum

One of the most popular targets for the Bengals in this year's draft, at least in the public eye, has been Kentucky pass-rusher Bud Dupree.

Don't sleep on his Wildcat teammate though, as Za'Darius Smith also has the team's attention. The Bengals sent head coach Marvin Lewis, defensive-line coach Jay Hayes and several scouts to Kentucky's Pro Day on Thursday. Cincinnati and Baltimore are among the teams that have talked to Smith leading up to his Pro Day.

"A lot of teams see me as a third-round guy," Smith said Thursday. "As long as I get my foot in the door, I'm going to work as hard as I can."

Smith fits the mold of defensive ends the Bengals have targeted in recent years: High-upside guys without a lot of football in their background, at least production-wise, who they can develop into quality NFL players.

Michael Johnson was a one-year starter in college at Georgia Tech, but developed into a Pro Bowl-level pass-rusher in Cincinnati.

Margus Hunt didn't play football until his senior season in high school, then spent the first part of his post-high school career as a  track and field star, and only then started playing football again in 2009. He's still developing into the best football player he'll become.

Will Clarke was another one-year wonder in college who the Bengals drafted in hopes of developing into an NFL-caliber pass-rusher. Both he and Hunt have yet to develop into what the Bengals hope they'll become, and that could lead to another mid-round pick being spent on a high-upside, low-production guy like Za'Darius.

Like the aforementioned guys, Smith showed flashes of being an NFL pass-rusher while at Kentucky. He had four sacks in his first two Division I games (MIami, Oh. and Western Kentucky), but had just 7.5 over his final 22 collegiate games. Part of that had to do with Smith not picking up football until his senior season of high school.

"I haven't been playing football that long," Smith said at UK's Pro Day. "Been playing only five years. In high school, I played just one year because I was a basketball player. I think I've got a lot of upside, so I just have to wait and see what happens."

In between was a lot of flashes of a good pass-rushers, but too many disappearing acts as well. Part of that also had to do with the scheme Smith was in, a hybrid 4-3/3-4 defense that would see him playing 4-3 DE and 3-4 DL in the same game.

Heck, his own coach, Mark Stoops, said at UK's Pro Day he thinks Smith can be a 4-3 DT in the NFL on passing downs. That's what could separate him as different kind of project DL from Clarke and Hunt. Clarke is more of a true pass-rusher, at least, that's what the Bengals hope he develops into.

As for Hunt, he was used more at DE last year after kicking into DT some as a rookie. He still could be used in that dual role, but they may want him to focus more on DE to help speed up his development. DEs Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers have also kicked inside to DT on passing downs, and Geathers was cut this offseason.

Again, all of the aforementioned players were all either drafted after the first 52 picks (Hunt, Johnson, Clarke, Geathers), or signed off the street (Gilberry).

The Bengals like versatile lineman they can get later in the draft, and Smith could develop into that kind of player in the NFL. To this point, Smith said at his Pro Day that the Bengals have talked to him in recent weeks, but no official meeting and/or workout has been scheduled yet.