CINCINNATI — Two days before the draft, the Cincinnati Bengals called offensive tackle Andre Smith and told him to get ready for a surprise visit to his home in Birmingham, Ala., one that would involve getting on a scale.
When the junior tackle weighed in at 337 pounds, only slightly heavier than his playing weight, the Bengals were sold. The huge lineman with some big questions about maturity would be their first-round draft pick.
Cincinnati took Smith with the sixth overall pick Saturday, bringing in a lot of girth to help protect quarterback Carson Palmer. The junior from Alabama gave teams some second thoughts when he left the scouting combine unannounced in February.
Two months of visits, including that surprise one Thursday from offensive line coach Paul Alexander, convinced the Bengals to make Smith the first offensive tackle they’ve taken with a top pick since Levi Jones in 2002.
“We’ve really liked him and wanted just to make sure,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “This is a big pick for us, and we wanted to make sure this is the right person for us.”
His big proportions fit their biggest need.
Palmer got battered last year because the line couldn’t protect him. He broke his nose in the preseason and needed surgery, then sprained his ankle and tore a ligament and tendon in his passing elbow in the first three games of the regular season.
The elbow injury forced him to miss a dozen games, but healed without surgery. Heading into the draft, the Bengals knew there was only one way to go with their top pick. It had to be an offensive lineman.
But, which one?
Smith was considered one of the best, able to push people around with his long arms and 6-foot-4, 330-pound frame. The questions started when he was suspended for the Sugar Bowl, reportedly for having improper dealings with an agent, which he denied.
At the NFL combine, teams asked him about the suspension. Smith then raised a whole new set of questions by leaving the combine unexpectedly without giving notice or explanation to the league. His weight fluctuations also made some scouts leery.
The Bengals liked his blocking ability and singled him out as their potential top pick — Alexander texted him almost daily besides attending his workouts. Still, they wanted to make sure they weren’t making a big mistake by taking him with the sixth pick.
So, Lewis told his offensive line coach to make an unannounced visit. Alexander called Smith on Thursday morning and said he was on his way to Alabama to check his weight.
“I was really caught off-guard,” Smith said. “I wasn’t expecting it. It went really well. A lot of people say I tend to blow up in the offseason. I was 337 (pounds) when coach Alexander weighed me.”
That was only seven pounds over his playing weight. It was enough to clinch the deal.
Smith could move into a starting role quickly, assuming he doesn’t have a long contract negotiation. The Bengals lost right tackle Stacy Andrews to Philadelphia in free agency, and left tackle Levi Jones has been limited by a series of injuries the last few years.
Smith’s main job will be protecting Palmer, whom he met in another unexpected encounter. When he got on his flight to Cincinnati for a predraft workout, Smith saw Palmer sitting across the aisle.
“I told him, ‘Put in a good word for me,’ ” Smith said.
Smith’s weight was worth more than a good word.