Bengals put aside character issues in pursuit of talent

NEW YORK -- Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis never dodges the "character question" when it is tossed his way about his football team.

After this Bengals draft, it is surfacing again.

Lewis, again, is not ducking.

Every NFL team has waded through troubles with players exhibiting questionable character. But Cincinnati's past woes with players -- highlighted but not limited to receiver Chris Henry's repeated foibles -- make the Bengals a marked team in the character chatter. Lewis does not like the labels. Neither does Bengals owner Mike Brown, who has said he has a "soft spot" for players and that he will continue to give "deserving" chances to players who have run afoul when he deems it merited.

The Bengals drafted 11 players. Most of them do not have a single pre-draft character "issue."

Three of them do:

Offensive tackle Andre Smith was Cincinnati's first-round pick at No. 6. Smith has been under fire after being suspended for his final game at Alabama. He reportedly was inappropriately dealing with an agent. Smith told several teams during his pre-draft interviews that it was a family member who had contact with an agent. After informing Alabama, he was suspended. He was also heavily criticized for leaving the combine early without letting officials know. A talent considered good enough to be the first or second pick in the draft, some teams stayed away, citing immaturity and laziness.

Lewis said of Smith and the pick: "I was low on him, too, at the start. But the more I and others spent time with him, the more excited we became. He is not the first person to leave the combine early. We spent a lot of time with Andre and got to know him.

"We went back to visit with him a couple of days before the draft to be even more comfortable with him before turning in that card. We had weighed him 10 days before. He came out just fine on his weight in that surprise visit. And as much as that, we wanted to know more about why he had changed his agent. We wanted to clear up that and other things. He did and we did. He is a fine kid. I look forward to coaching him."

Linebacker Rey Maualuga was considered a first-round pick but slid into the second round as teams began questioning his character. There were reported questions involving a domestic dispute and his alleged temper exhibited toward teammates.

Lewis said of the Bengals' selection of Maualuga as the 38th overall pick: "There has been some of that kind of stuff circulating on Rey and he is aware of it. People close to him know better. His coach (Pete Carroll) at USC knows better. Rey is going to come in here and put his best foot forward. We're lucky he fell to us. It was a surprise. A very pleasant one."

With a sixth-round choice, the 209th overall, the Bengals selected Abilene Christian running back Bernard Scott.

This was OURLADS Scouting Service's analysis of Scott before the draft: "Four-year starter. Talented but troubled back that may not get a chance to play because he's like a cat that has used up his nine lives. The abridged version is that he's had success and trouble everywhere he's been. Problems with authority including hitting a coach at one of his four college stops … Had the talent to play Division I but not the inclination to follow rules. … Talent warrants higher grade. Off-field problems say don't waste your time."

Lewis responds: "He had issues in the past. He has cleaned them up."

Lewis said the Bengals have always had a list of players who they will not draft due to character issues and that this draft was not any different.

"There are a lot of players in this entire draft from the top to bottom that have different issues," Lewis said. "Each team puts them through their own character test. But we are going to take some chances and take some fliers on some guys. Every team does in its own way. I think because we went through a tough stretch in the past with some of our players that this becomes a focus. But we believe in these players and each one of them will come to us with the chance to prove it and prove themselves."

Lewis coached a few of the players that the Bengals drafted at the Senior Bowl in January. He gained the chance to work with them first-hand, to watch them work and to communicate with them on personal levels. That helped guide some of Cincinnati's selections, he said. It helped the Bengals gain trust in their picks.

The bottom line here is that, like it or not, the Bengals' margin for error in this area is smaller than most teams. Many of their peers are comfortable pointing a finger at the Bengals and taking the heat away from themselves. Many critics are comfortable having a team to represent the character issue, a team to label as the one to watch in this regard. And the Bengals are the choice.

Just like he will not dodge the issue, Lewis will not accept that lot.

"I'm for us getting great football players, that we let our eyes do the work and that we do our research," he said. "Not worry about these things but get good players and coach them up in production. I think we have hit areas of skill and need in this draft. We've gotten some competitive guys, some competitive young talent that we believe will do things right."

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