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A top pick's debut

8-3-01, 7:15 p.m.


CHICAGO _ First-round pick Justin Smith's career is hung up on guarantees.

But second-round pick Chad Johnson is all but guaranteeing great things in a career that starts in Saturday's pre-season opener here against the Bears.

Smith agent Jim Steiner's latest proposal still contains guaranteed salaries covering $4 million of the $9 million signing bonus, which doesn't interest Bengals' negotiators whom are ruling out guarantees.

But with the opener looming, attention shifts to the debut of the top pick who is in uniform. Johnson has the game-breaking speed the Bengals hope jets their pass offense out of the NFL dead hole.

Asked if he wonders about being able to run past cornerbacks in a game like he has the past 10 days or so in practice, Johnson flashes his gold teeth and steel-belted confidence.

"I'm not worried about anything," Johnson said. "They're going to get burned just like everybody else we're going to play. You know when I get on that field I'm real cocky. I'm not the talking type, but you've got an idea what's going to happen."

The Bengals unveil their new offense Saturday that relies heavily on three receivers and Johnson has to be considered the centerpiece of offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's new passing scheme since the man they call "C.J," is walking into a carbon copy of the offense he had at Oregon State.

"For me to come to the Bengals and Coach Bratkowski," Johnson said, "is a damn miracle. I'm doing the exact same things."

When Johnson spoke with cousin Keyshawn Johnson and some other NFL players earlier in the week, he said he told them the Bengals have the NFL's best three-receiver rotation.

"I want you to do this," Johnson said. "Start with Atlanta and go all the way down to Washington, the last team in the NFL (list) and name three receivers who can do what we do or have the

talent that we have right now at receiver."

Jon Kitna, the Bengals starting quarterback Saturday, just smiles and names St. Louis, Denver, Minnesota and Oakland as teams with a nice trio of receivers.

"I m not saying they're better, but they're more experienced," Kitna said. "That's part of being young and brash. All the things I like receivers to be. I kind of like that. Let your quarterback be the diplomat."

Kitna stayed politically correct when asked if the 6-2, 195-pound Johnson reminds him of anyone, but he still couldn't hide his enthusiasm: "It would be unfair to the person I have in mind. I don't think we even know what we have in him yet."

Johnson, last year's No. 1 pick Peter Warrick, and eight-year veteran Darnay Scott's 13 career touchdown catches of 40 yards or more line up in the first half. With the three-receiver set emphasis, wide receivers coach Steve Mooshagian is lobbying to keep six on the final 53-man roster. The sixth man could be one of a handful of guys, but everyone knows who are the top three.

"Peter Warrick. Short game unbelievable," Johnson said. "Darnay Scott. Deep and short game unbelievable. My short game, my long game. Unbelievable. St. Louis has great receivers, but I just don't think they have the speedsters like Darnay and myself."

Mooshagian shakes his head and says, "These guys haven't played a game together yet. It's way too early."

But he loves Johnson's outlook and calls it "a good element." He's relying on Scott to humble his rookie.

"Darnay is putting him under his wing and he lets him know when he's taken something too far," Mooshagian said. "It's kind of like a little brother. Peter is a little more mature as a second-year player than he was a year ago."

Bratkowski stood on the table in the Bengals' draft room this past spring to get Johnson, mainly because of his devastating speed as well as polished routes. Yes, he only played one year of Division I ball. But it was in a pro offense and Bratkowski had the advantage of seeing him practice and study at the Senior Bowl.

The Steelers' coaching staff was in charge of the North all-star team, so Bratkowski's last act as Pittsburgh's receivers coach turned out be plucking a leading AFC central threat after Johnson caught seven balls and 93 yards for him in Mobile, Ala.

"His routes are good. That's a solid part of his game," Mooshagian said. "What he has to work on is recognizing coverages and blitzes. He needs to be more consistent with sight adjustments and recognizing the defense, but that's going to come with the snaps and repetition."

Kitna hopes Johnson will be patient and not force it even though he loves Johnson's hunger for the ball and ability to go get it.

"He's got to be careful to allow his technique not to go out the window, in lieu of him trying to be open," Kitna said. "That's the hardest thing for young receivers in this league to understand. It's not always for you to be open sometimes. You have to give yourself up for the good of the team."

In last Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage, Johnson wasn't quite quick enough in dragging his route across the end zone, so cornerback Artrell Hawkins was able to come out of nowhere and pick Kitna's pass to tight end Tony McGee.

"We hadn't run that play very much and not live," said Kitna. "I didn't know what to expect from that play myself."

Kitna compares Johnson's ability to lurch into another gear to go get the ball when he sees it in the air to what Scott has done through the years.

"But Darnay has done it," Kitna said.

Now Johnson gets to do it.

"About time," Johnson said. "I'm so excited. I'm looking forward to do what I do best. And that's play football Saturday night."

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