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AFC arms buildup

Georgia Tech wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (AP photo)

The way ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., sees it, if the Bengals don't take Georgia Tech wide receiver Demaryius Thomas at No. 21, the Patriots could at No. 22, or the Ravens could at No. 25, or the Jets could at No. 29. All teams the Bengals play in 2010.

Kiper, the granddaddy-o of draftnicks, tabs the 6-3, 230-pound Thomas as the unheralded junior who is going to come shooting out of next week's NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis as the rising star at wide receiver.

By April 22, Thomas could be the latest piece in what is shaping up to be a weapons race in the AFC North between the Bengals and the Ravens. Five days after sources said Cincinnati agreed with Matt Jones to a reported one-year, $700,000 deal for incentives, the Ravens reached a one-year, $900,000 incentive deal with another former first-round pick that also sat out all of 2009 in Donte' Stallworth.

The race appears to be on to see who goes nuclear in getting weapons for Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer and Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Even though it was reported Wednesday that Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco is willing to take a pay cut to sign Terrell Owens, it is the same story when The Ocho tried to bring them together two weeks ago at a Super Bowl party.

Owens' age (37 this coming December) is probably a bigger stumbling block than money. It was Stallworth's age (30 this coming November) and recent track record (63 catches and four touchdowns the past two seasons) that apparently weren't appealing to the Bengals.

Matt Bowen of the praised the Ravens' move and compared it to the Bengals signing of Jones: "Low risk, and hopefully, high reward." But he also urged them to keep going.

"Those bigger, better names are still out there. A player such as a Brandon Marshall shouldn't see his name crossed off of the Ravens wish list because of Stallworth."

It is doubtful the Bengals are going to involve themselves in such free-agent dalliances after dropping more than $7 million on Laveranues Coles last year. If they don't, they are going to have to come up big in the draft.

Once upon a time scribes were able to reach Kiper at his Baltimore home in an instant. Now they have to wade through two-hour conference calls, like Wednesday's extravaganza in which The Slicked Back One was his quotable, approachable self. It's his opinion that if the Bengals want to attack their vertical problems in the passing game, they have to strike quickly and "identify the player in the first round," rather than wait for the second.

"I know they've done that in the past," he said of second-round receivers that range from the six-time Pro Bowler Ochocinco to a guy who has played in just seven games in Jerome Simpson. "Thomas is a big receiver with vertical speed. He's going to amaze people how fast he is. He may be so underrated because he comes out of a run-oriented offense. But he's a big kid who can run and has big hands. ... He's a guy people are going to be talking about coming out of the combine."

He better because at the moment many projections have Thomas going in the second round. But then again, some gurus have the Bengals taking a tight end in the first round, yet Kiper seems to suggest they won't be able to get an impact wideout in the second round. But he also said Wednesday that the University of Cincinnati's Mardy Gilyard is going to go in the second or third round and even though he's not seen as a burner, he does have big-play capabilities as a run-after-catch guy and a double threat as a kick returner.

Kiper is pushing Thomas because of his Andre Johnson-like specs and Calvin Johnson Tech pedigree, but scouts are no doubt skeptical about his pro-readiness coming out of what amounted to Tech's Wishbone offense. Especially when he was blanked in his last game in the Orange Bowl. Still, Thomas caught 46 passes for 1,154 yards and eight touchdowns this past season and led the ACC in receiving yards as well as yards per catch at 25.1.

CLEAN UP: Left tackle Andrew Whitworth had his left shoulder "cleaned up" surgically last month. He says it was minor enough that he'll be cleared next week and that he should have no problem starting the offseason workout program on time on March 29.

"It wasn't really one play or anything like that," Whitworth said. "It was pretty much a buildup of playing a lot of years of football and it was just something that I needed to get done."

Safety Chris Crocker is also coming off a cleanup procedure of his ankle and the Bengals expect him to be ready to go in the spring. Crocker's injury hampered him in the Minnesota game before it took him out of the last three regular-season games. He bit the bullet in the Wild Card game but it clearly bothered him. Apparently he suffered no more damage and the procedure shouldn't cost him any time on the field.

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