4-25-04, 2:15 a.m
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals bulked up on defense with four picks in the NFL Draft's first 96 selections that consumed the first three rounds as Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis continued to leave fingerprints all over the Bengals' rebirth in his second NFL Draft.
After adding the Big Ten Offensive Player of the year (Michigan running back Chris Perry), they chose the cornerback who led the nation in interceptions (Florida's Keiwan Ratliff), a safety who plays like a corner (Maryland's Madieu Williams), a linebacker who has one of the highest intelligence test scores in the draft along with 38 straight starts (Arkansas' Caleb Miller), and one of the fastest linebackers in the draft in Purdue's Landon Johnson.
The Bengals also added their third fourth-round pick with their third trade in 15 days, giving them eight picks in the first 123 selections for their biggest four-round take since the 1984 draft helped build the 1988 Super Bowl team.
Lewis took some heat from those who wondered why some of these guys went higher than the "experts,' had them ranked, but he ignored them because the only experts that count to him are those sitting around his table.
"They (media) have a job to do, obviously," Lewis said. "Most of the teams in the league felt the way we felt about those particular players, so who's to say that we're not right about these particular players? I've heard from about four or five head coaches around the NFL today congratulating us on the guys that we have taken.
" They were the same guys that they had coveted," Lewis said. "They felt strongly about what kind of football players they were, what kind of character guys they were and what kind of athletic ability they had at that position. That made me feel great. I think we can look up there today and feel real good about what we did. We got guys that three years down the road are going to be great football players in the NFL."
What Lewis didn't say is that the Bengals added five players who fit into his new regime better than they fit into Mel Kiper Jr.'s draft report, or the armchair where all the quarterbacks are sitting because he believes he got five Marvin Lewis players: Smart, productive, committed, solid character, and who figure to make the 53-man roster.
The Bengals had more chances to trade after the first round,, but they turned down all requests, including an offer from Washington for the 80th pick in exchange for a second-rounder next year. But the Bengals weren't interested in giving up any picks from this draft because there were players there they wanted.
"We ended up with guys and we didn't have to move up to get them," Lewis said. "Now we've got some opportunities tomorrow."
The key word for Lewis this weekend is production. He says the Bengals' defense now has the hardest workers and best producers from their teams. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier came into this draft looking for interceptions and after getting just 14 all last season, he got 12 from Ratliff (nine) and Williams (three).
"We're more productive," said Lewis of his defense Saturday compared to Friday. "We got guys who can run. We got football players who will fight you. If you went to their college campuses, they would tell you they were the hardest-playing guys on their teams."
While the masses called for the Bengals to draft Ohio State cornerback Chris Gamble, the Bengals noted how he struggled against Michigan and his inconsistent play all season. When he ran a slow 40-yard time at his two workouts, the tape didn't bail him out.
" People can't pigeon-hole you on what you are going to do and think. We graded the guys just like the other guys have graded the guys," Lewis said. "The people they thought that we were going to pick went where they were picked, which was a lot further back."
Meanwhile, the Bengals were impressed with Perry's numbers running and catching the ball and his down-to-down production. Maybe it didn't hurt he had a big day against Gamble's defense in Michigan's victory with 154 yards rushing and 55 more catching. If it's about helping new quarterback Carson Palmer, then they have given him a back that gives him more in the passing game than Corey Dillon and a back that can help Rudi Johnson pound the ball and take pressure off the passing game.
"I will say that his overall fundamentals and execution of this game are exciting. This guy is as close to James Brooks that we have had here in a long time," said running backs coach Jim Anderson.
While some complain that the Bengals did Saturday the opposite of what they did last year in Lewis' first draft and reached, he'll tell you they did the same thing. They went right off their grades, particularly in the second round. Speed wide receiver Devery Henderson from LSU was sitting at No. 49, but so was Ratliff, a guy they had rated right with Tusculum's Ricardo Colclough, the fifth corner on the board taken by the Steelers 11 picks before.
Also on the board with Williams at No. 56 was Florida State defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. A good player, but if this pick doesn't prove they've got Broncos defensive tackle Daryl Gardener in the fold after June 1, what does? Dockett would be part of a rotation, plus they had a shot at defensive linemen later, plus Williams might come in and start and he would certainly be a factor on special teams on a roster that didn't have as many safeties as defensive tackles when the day began.
"(Critics) don't know the flexibility of the players we have," Lewis said. "Madieu Williams was in the box for Maryland. In Maryland's defense, he was the drop down safety, the guy making the tackles. Until he went to the Senior Bowl. He evolved into that free safety mode, a corner type."
Go into the third round, and there were the Lewisbackers. Defensive tackles Tim Anderson of Ohio State and Randy Starks went a few picks before the Bengals selected at No. 80, and they attacked the position Lewis had singled out earlier this week as needing to be "cycled through." So they opted for Arkansas' Caleb Miller, a strong-side backer type with Adrian Ross and Dwayne Levels recovering from injuries that may not put them on the field until training camp.
"He's 6'3" and (225) pounds," said linebackers coach Ricky Hunley. "He has a little Jack Ham look about him. A while back, Jack Ham turned out to be an All-Pro. There was another skinny guy with a little waist named Jack Lambert. We are looking for guys who make plays on tape and who are productive. He gets in there and makes plays and mixes it up. I know that sitting here in the third round, he was still available for us to take, so we're fortunate."
By productive, they mean Miller has started 38 straight games and led his team in tackles last season.
"I'm not really much of a talker about myself, but if I had to say anything, I'd say my strengths are my quickness and my ability to get off blocks," Miller said. "I definitely never slow down on the field, and I give 110 percent every time I am on the field. I make up for being undersized by shedding blocks. That's the way it was in college and I hope to continue that."
The Bengals see Miller mainly as a strong-side backer, but he could play all three spots and, "in the (passing) situation he could fill the middle role. He's very athletic and fast enough to go sideline to sideline," Hunley said.
The idea of any Lewisbacker is speed.
"They don't make any more of it," Hunley said. "They say in the 40 time, 1/10 of a second is about two steps. I can see Coach Lewis now when I've got a guy catching a ball and the guy is two steps behind."
"All the guys we drafted today," Lewis said, "were productive on their campuses."
At No. 96, the Bengals opted for another linebacker in Purdue's Johnson. He may end up being more of a pass rusher, weak-side guy than Miller, but both figure to juice up special teams.
"All the way around," Lewis said. "Landon still played on their punt team this year, and Caleb has also been productive in there. With both guys we help ourselves in that way. It's an area where you always get concerned with. Now we have a chance to compete and get better on the field."
And believe that character was involved.
They didn't find Miller celebrating his draft in some posh hotel. He was at a Christian sports camp retreat for children, "somewhere in Oklahoma I think." Perry became the model Michigan player after his mother, who publishes a local events guide known as Ann Arbor Magazine, gave a headline to head coach Lloyd Carr that basically said, "Tell me when he's acting up again and I'll come get him." Some on the Michigan staff told the Bengals he was the best practice player they ever there. Ratliff bounced back from the heartbreak of Steve Spurrier moving him from receiver to corner at Florida.
Williams may be the best story of all. He came to this country from the African nation of Sierra Leone when he was nine, discovered football in the neighborhood streets when he was 10, and walked on to the Maryland team after a disappointing career at Towson State.
"He's a guy who has overcome, which is a testimony again to his solid character. He is a solid person, as well as a good football player," Frazier said. "To walk on at Maryland, and to overcome some of the things he overcame, and then become a starter there says a lot for him."
Williams spent last summer working with terminally ill children as part of his internship for his degree in family studies.
"I think it's been a good day. We've gotten some good people," Lewis said.