Bengaldom stirs with camp a month away

6-27-03, 4 p.m.

With training camp 30 days away, all is quiet on the Paul Brown Stadium front.

Negotiations for the six unsigned draft picks won't pick up steam until after the Fourth of July, and probably later because camp opens a week later this year. At the moment, there are no enticing veteran free agents out there.

And, if any emerge, they would most likely be offered the minimum, and, if they signed, someone would probably have to be let go because the Bengals have just enough money left under the salary cap ($3 million according to reports) to sign their picks and keep a pad for injuries.

The biggest question facing the club with a month to go seems to be the balky back of backup running back Brandon Bennett. A disc problem prevented him from participating in most of the team drills this spring, and word around the NFL is they did have a passing interest in running back Thomas Jones until the Cardinals traded him to Tampa Bay a few weeks ago. They hope to get a more definitive word on Bennett's health in the next few weeks.

It may be quiet, but Bengaldom is never at ease as evident by this installment of Hobson's Choice:

**

Hi Geoff, I am concerned with the hype and potential fall we may see with our bengals this year. We open to a pretty hard grind, this season. Football is not just a physical game but also a mental game. Our losing history hangs around our necks like a 6000 lb elephant. What is the team doing to ensure that we understand that we must play one game at a time whether we start 0-3 or go 3-0?

I love Lewis's approach and do feel he has the run of the team. Certainly, seems to me that if you are not part of the solution then you are a problem and are moving on. Personally, I liked Smith but think moving him was important.

My second question is how close are we to getting some more players signed? Sure would be nice to see all of our grade A draft choices in the fold before training camp. David, Oakville, Canada.**

DAVID: You answered your own question with the words, "Lewis' approach." What more can you do but emphasize one play at a time? Lewis has ordered those words to hang in the weight room.

He has also been mindful of the hype. If it's one thing head coaches anywhere can't stand, it's high expectations. If you listen closely, he's been saying all the new things the Bengals have been doing this offseason are what everyone else in the league is doing. So he's trying to pound it into his players that they are merely starting in the 6-10, pack and that they have to take it to the next level.

No one is signing anybody at the moment. As Len Pasquarelli of ESPN.com reports, of the 94 players selected on the first day of the draft, only four have signed as agents grapple with a flat rookie pool over last year. The only first-rounder in the fold is the Bengals' Carson Palmer, and no second-rounders have signed.

The Bengals, who have also signed sixth-rounder Elton Patterson, and seventh-rounder Scott Kooistra, plan to crank up negotiations closer to camp. Second-rounder Eric Steinbach should get in on time. Bengals vice president Paul Brown has already visited his agent and may do so again before camp.

**What was the thinking behind moving O'Dwyer to ORG and Goff to OC and inserting Steinbach at OLG? Does the team consider itself to be a right-handed running team, thus wanting the two road graders in O'Dwyer and Anderson lining up together with the athletic Steinbach being able to pull?

Does the team use many schemes where the OGs are called upon to pull? Does the team use zone blocking or man-to man? Are there concerns about a 2nd year OLT in Jones lining up next to a rookie OLG, or is that considered a positive in that Jones and Steinbach can grow together? Thanks, Geoff; I enjoy reading your columns. Christopher, Chattanooga, Tenn.**

CHRISTOPHER: Thanks for the kind words. They know Steinbach is coming off an All-American season at left guard at Iowa and they wanted to make sure the guy having the easiest transition is the rookie instead of the veteran. Plus, O'Dwyer had some excellent seasons in New

York playing right guard for the Jets before he came to the Bengals in 1999. With many athletic defenders lining up at end or outside linebacker opposite the offense's left side, they now have to get by the Bengals' two most athletic linemen.

They don't try to favor sides when running the ball. But if they did, you would get a vote for the left because Dillon usually carries the ball in his left arm, and a vote for the right because of the presence of Anderson. They like to pull when they can, and will probably do more now that Steinbach gives them so much more athleticism.

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and some players have said a few times this spring that the blocking in the running game has been tweaked a bit. You might see a little more straight ahead, man-on-man-off-the-ball-quick blocking after they struggled so much last season on the goal line and in the red zone. But they will continue to pepper the scheme with zone stuff, too. **

If either Hardy or Spearman are injured, who would be the backup at middle linebacker? Wouldn't it have been wiser to keep Canute Curtis at least through the pre-season games as insurance for that very possibility, as this seems to be the position with the least depth on the entire team? Ken, Eastgate.**

KEN: Actually, linebacker continues to have some of the most depth. Particularly when you have a backup like Spearman who has made 11 NFL starts in the middle, and a guy you can move to the middle like Adrian Ross, who has started 22 games inside and outside. And if all else fails, you can move Brian Simmons back to the middle from the right outside.

They must have decided that Curtis doesn't fit their style of backer. So it's better for him to move on and have a shot at getting a job elsewhere, and it's better for the team to give more snaps to their kind of backer, like the 225-pound fifth-round pick, speedster Khalid Abdullah.

How has Derek Smith been doing and what are his chances of making the team with the Bengals picking up Reggie Kelly and Tony Stewart?

Like Sean Brewer, the third-round pick of 2001, Smith, a Northern Kentucky product and University of Kentucky standout, has a battle on his hands to make the roster. He doesn't have the experience of Kelly (69 NFL catches) or the blocking rep of Stewart. Smith is an impressive guy, but the conventional wisdom is Kelly and Stewart join Matt Schobel with Schobel coming off the most productive season by a Bengals' tight end in several years. **

First off, I've never been so happy or proud to be a Bengals fan as I have this offseason. I'm excited about every move and change Coach Lewis has made since his arrival. Recently, the Bengals picked up Rogers Beckett off waivers from San Diego and that got me wondering, what is the difference between putting a player on waivers and simply releasing him? What considerations make a team do one over the other? Tim Bloomsburg PA**

TIM: The team can't decide if it puts a player on waivers or outright releases him. If a player who has less than four years of service is cut, he goes through the waiver system and has a chance to be claimed off waivers by 31 other teams who are willing to pay him his contract. Teams are rewarded players according to their spots in the draft order.

When a player who has four years of experience or more is cut, he becomes a free agent and can make a deal with any club. There is a time late in the season when even a four-year player has to go through waivers if he is released. **

It seems that we hear a lot about the competition at safety, but not a lot about Lamont Thompson. Is he a bust... or just slow in developing, but they see his potential further down the road? He seems to have a lot of physical ability, such as size and speed, but I wonder if the game is coming slowly to him. Ted, Coppell, TX**

TED: You can't call him a bust after one season. But the signing of Rogers Beckett and the moving of Kevin Kaesviharn from corner to safety indicates they're not pleased with anybody there. You're right, Thompson has the talent, which is why this staff wants to get a long look at him.

And, maybe he wasn't used effectively last year. They thought he wasn't a killer hitter when they drafted him, and there were some rumblings that they planned to play him in center field, but ended up using him too much in the box near the line of scrimmage. Whether that's so is neither here or there now, so give him a shot in the new scheme. **

Can Chad Johnson really reach 1800 yards this year with Kitna at QB? I think those yards would be more realistic with a "stronger armed" QB. Who will more than likely start along side him at reciever? Thanks! Roger W. Newark, Ohio**

ROGER: Let's put it this way. Johnson would have had 1,451 yards if he played every game with Kitna last year, when they hardly worked together in the minicamps and training camp compared to what they'll do this season. But, of course, 1,800 is a supersonic number for anybody. If Marvin Harrison only had 1,600 with Peyton Manning, maybe nobody can do it. But Kitna had a better year than a lot of guys last year who have stronger arms.

There's no question the Bengals drafted Kelley Washington with the idea that he was going to be paired at some point opposite Johnson with Peter Warrick in the slot. But it took Johnson more than a season to emerge, so the question is out of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Danny Farmer, and Ron Dugans, which guy puts the most heat on Washington in training camp?

How many players at each position do you think the Bengals will have on the 53 man roster? Also, will there be any undrafted free agent rookies that might surprise and make the team? Tim, Hardin, Ky.

TIM: You could end up with three quarterbacks, three tight ends, five running backs and fullbacks, six wide receivers, 10 offensive linemen, eight defensive linemen, six linebackers, nine defensive backs, and three specialists. The Bengals have a lot of versatility at linebacker and the secondary and could go lighter than the usual seven backers and 10 DBs. Too early to make a call on the free agents, but they like the looks of the Johnson Guys (Garry and Belton) at offensive tackle. **

Mr. Hobson, Great job following the Bengals and coming up with story ideas even at some of the slowest times of the year! How vocal has Kevin Hardy been on the practice field and in the locker room? Have the Bengals rallied around him and his fiery style, or is there still a little hangover from the missing presence of Takeo Spikes? If not, who is establishing himself early on as the emotional leader of the defense? Thanks, Ryan -Rancho Cucamonga, CA**

RYAN: Thank you for the kind words, but please don't call me, "Mr. Hobson." He's my father. Hardy has certainly established himself as an elder of the defense. Since he's calling the signals in the middle, he is naturally vocal and the players naturally turn to him.

Spikes will always be a friend of bengals.com, but clearly there is now a different style of leadership on defense without his heart-on-the-sleeve emotion. Hardy and Simmons have the two lockers at the head of the locker room on the right and they are approachable and guys do approach them, partly because of the proximity and partly because they've been around. What one of them hasn't seen, the other has.

They aren't as fiery as Spikes (who is?) but they're not as quiet as one might think. Hardy is an outgoing guy to veterans and kids alike, and he's been free with advice while Simmons has one of the great needling sense of humors in the Western Hemisphere. It's different, but a nice mix. The fact that Lewis, Hardy, and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier have either coached or played in nine NFL conference championship games have softened the leadership loss of Spikes. **

Geoff; The Bengals are my favorite team and I am glad Mike Brown made the changes he did this past season. Mike deserves a great deal of credit for admitting his methods did not work and listening to Katie and Troy. Marvin has made great decisions and the changes have changed the teams attitude and the new players have increased the talent level greatly.

These are my questions for you: 1) Will the Bengals be in NFL physical shape when the season starts? 2) Will the Bengals have the mental toughness to compete against the great teams they play this year? 3) Will the Bengals have the discipline to execute the plays as they are designed for the offense, defense and special teams? My last question is this: Last year I saw Mike Goff on his back more than he was on his feet, Why was he moved to center? He was awful last year playing guard and now he is our starting center? This is the only move Marvin has made that I don't understand. Dan Bellefontaine, OH**

DAN: Take the last one first. Goff will be the first to tell you he had a miserable year last year, but he was hurt for a great deal of it with a bad cut around his knee that never quite healed. Plus, they will tell you around here he was out of shape.

During this offseason, he's dropped 10 pounds, is down to 302-305, and he looks like a different guy. Is that enough? Who knows? But he has played a lot better here than he did last year.

There is no question this team will be in its best shape in years. The one damming stat about the way they prepared in offseasons past is that 17-74 record in September and October since 1991. But every NFL team trains like the Bengals have this winter and spring, so that alone won't put them over the top.

The other questions you ask can't be answered until it happens. Clearly the thing that will determine if Lewis can turn this thing around is if he can get the Bengals to rebound from adversity during games and prevent them from saying "Here we go again," at the first turnover, sack, defensive lapse or specials teams screwup.

Certainly it can be said that all indications are Lewis is less forgiving than past regimes when execution fails in practice. But that's all you can say now.

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