Top pick tailor-made for Alexander

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Paul Alexander was overjoyed and underdressed. He considered wearing a suit for the National Football League draft, but he could not convince himself he would need it.

Football coaches sometimes choose their draft day ensemble according to the probability they will appear before the television cameras. The offensive line coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, therefore, should have worn his Sunday best Saturday afternoon.

Alexander showed up in a sportshirt and slacks. No jacket. No tie. Not so much as an ascot. He had wanted Willie Anderson for two months, but refused to believe it would work out.

"I had a suit laid out, and I said, 'It isn't going to happen,' " Alexander said. "I'm the kind of guy, when we go into a game, I think we're going to lose by 40 points."

The NFL draft is nine parts anxiety and one part activity. The Bengals projected Auburn tackle Willie Anderson as their top draft choice in February, and spent the last two months preparing for their plans to be disrupted.

"We had set up our order," said Bengals coach Dave Shula. "Basically, there was a top three. If A's not there, you go to B. If B's not there, you go to C."

Shula acknowledged Plan B was Oklahoma defensive end Cedric Jones and Plan C was Oregon cornerback Alex Molden. By then, the point was pretty much moot, for Plan A was still available. Willie Anderson was on the board when Cincinnati chose 10th, and there would be no debate in the Bengals draft room. Still, there was some suspense.

Tampa calling?

When Alexander called Anderson on Saturday morning, he discovered Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy had already been in contact with the Auburn colossus. The Bucs held two first-round draft choices, and had indicated an inclination to trade up. When it was announced Houston had traded its first-round pick - the choice immediately preceding the Bengals - a four-letter oath escaped Alexander's lips.

Houston's trade was with Oakland, however, and the Raiders coveted Ohio State tight end Rickey Dudley.

"There was a sigh of relief in our room," Bengals General Manager Mike Brown said.

Except for Paul Alexander's fashion crisis, events had panned out perfectly.

"The first time I saw Willie do anything athletically was at the (NFL scouting) combine," Alexander said. "The thing that stands out the most was seeing Willie coming at you while doing the drills. The feeling I had watching him was like when you drive too close to the railroad tracks, you can feel the vibration of the train coming by. The combination of his size, power and mass coming at you in a hurry would concern some people."

No regrets

Later, Alexander went to Auburn to put Anderson to the test personally. He tugged on the lineman's arms in order to assess his strength and decided they could have served as a chin-up bar. Anderson was raw, he thought, but remarkably motivated. Alexander would recommend him without reservation.

Not since Anthony Munoz (1980) have the Bengals selected an offensive lineman so high in the draft or with so little trepidation. Former line coach Jim McNally lobbied for center Dave Rimington when the Bengals might have had Dan Marino in 1983, and McNally subsequently grew gun-shy about seeking premium picks.

"Basically, assistant coaches don't like first-round draft choices," Alexander said, "because if the guy fails it's, 'Let's get a new coach.' If the guy's good, he was supposed to be good. Maybe this shows that I'm young and foolish, but I wasn't afraid to stand up and pound the table."

Because the Bengals' 1995 line allowed fewer quarterback sacks than any team in franchise history, the need for a new tackle might not have appeared particularly acute. Yet Joe Walter will be 33 years old this summer, and Ki-Jana Carter could surely benefit from better run-blocking.

The NFL draft is always dicey, but Willie Anderson would seem as good a guess as any. If Paul Alexander had any regrets Saturday, they concerned his clothes.

Published April 21, 1996.