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Bengals go in kicking

4-17-02, 9:00 p.m.


With the Bengals sitting on prime real estate for a trade down in Saturday's first round of the NFL Draft, they still weren't sure Wednesday who they were taking or if they would even have the 10th pick.

A beefy quartet of unique difference-makers at defensive tackle (Ryan Sims, Wendell Bryant, Albert Haynesworth, John Henderson) are no doubt whetting the appetites of teams desperately needing defense and No. 10 may be one of their last chances to get one. And they are good enough to even interest teams who aren't so desperate on defense, such as the Bengals.

But one thing is certain. At some point in their draft room this weekend, the Bengals are going to raise the issue of drafting a place kicker earlier than they probably ever have. Let's just say the natives aren't pleased with the progress of Neil Rackers.

It's probably not going to happen on the first day in the first three rounds. But Sunday won't be too far along before names such as Travis Dorsch, Jeff Chandler, and Hayden Epstein get bounced off the walls.

As the Bengals' sixth-round draft pick two years ago, the embattled Rackers knows what that means. Doug Pelfrey, then the Bengals' embattled incumbent, told him right away that the drafted rookie automatically gets the benefit of the doubt. After all, it was the

eighth-rounder Pelfrey who unseated Bengals all-time scorer Jim Breech in 1993.

"Doug Pelfrey informed me of that," Rackers said Wednesday. "That's the first thing Pelfrey said when I came here. I think I beat out Doug that first camp, but I know what he's talking about. They've made their decision and I can't worry about it. I have to worry about me."

The Bengals are worried about Rackers primarily because he is 6-for-16 on field goals between 40 and 49 yards during his career. Special teams coach Al Roberts calls them "layups," and the Bengals are looking for a guy who can dunk.

"It's as big a need for us as much as tight end and safety," said Jim Lippincott, the club's director of pro/college personnel, when asked if a kicker will be discussed. "The question about a kicker in the draft is always, 'How early?' (Sebastian) Janikowski went in the first round a couple of years ago, but there are no Janikowskis this year."

No, but there are some guys who could end up getting drafted and would be an upgrade, starting with Purdue's two-way star in Dorsch. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., actually projects Chandler going to the Bengals in the sixth round.

Kiper has Dorsch going in the fifth round to the Rams as a punter, Ourlads sends him to Seattle in the sixth round, and Jerry Jones of "The Drugstore List," has him pegged in the fifth.

Dorsch led the Big 10 in kicking and punting this past season, when he made 20 of 25 field goals. Which was Rackers' percentage his senior year in the Big Ten.

Dorsch may unnerve Roberts because he's got a reputation for missing the gimmies, such as five extra points last year. Lippincott, though, thinks that might be more related to protection problems and, besides, what a roster eater. He could be a kicker, kick-off man and punter, but "Pro Football Weekly's" Joel Buchsbaum wrote he, "is not a sure thing in any of them."

Chandler has been pretty much a sure thing at Florida since 1998 and in his last three years he has only missed three field goals in each of the seasons. Jones has him as a seventh-rounder and Ourlads calls him a free agent. Buchsbaum wrote Chandler is an efficient kick-off guy and his leg got stronger every year.

"There are also guys we think who won't be drafted who will be out there and could come in and compete," said Duke Tobin, the Bengals' director of pro/college personnel.

One insider even suggested the Bengals could find their 2002 kicker during final cuts in August. They like the power of Toledo's Todd France, but would like to see more consistent accuracy. Ourlads calls Princeton's Taylor Northrop their "free-agent find," at the kicking spot.

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