3-24-04, 5:20 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The questions and doubts about Dennis Weathersby have gnawed away at everybody, even him, for almost a year now. Even he sees the scars every day.
But Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier knows what he sees on film from this year and last.
"If you were evaluating him with this year's group of cornerbacks in the draft," Frazier mused Wednesday, "he would still be a first-round guy. No question because of his size and athletic ability. He's what people want at that position. If we can get the other factors to come together, the parts that make up a good football player, that mental toughness, we think he's going to be fine."
He has to be fine, now. The free-agency plan had been to grab one of Frazier's cornerbacks from his Philadelphia story so Weathersby could ease into a regular role during his second year. But Weathersby can now only watch Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor on tape while he suddenly becomes the leading candidate for the starting left cornerback job despite having more injuries than tackles his rookie season.
"Two years from now," said wide receiver Chad Johnson, his old college teammate, "Dennis is going to be like a Champ Bailey. A shut-down corner because of the way he's built with long arms. He can be a shut-down corner easy."
Bailey is one of those guys Weathersby watches on tape. And Chris McAlister, too. But mainly it is Vincent and Taylor; the two Eagles Frazier coached for four years. The 6-1, 205-pound Weathersby compares himself to the physical Taylor.
"Marvin (Lewis) is going to use him how he excels," Johnson said. "Right in a receiver's face on the line. Bump and run. He's got those (long) arms that keep you in place."
Weathersby hasn't offered many clues who and what he's going to be after what may have been the lowest-profile rookie season in Bengals' history last year. His teammate here and at Oregon State, fellow cornerback Terrell Roberts, admits "Dennis is hard to read sometimes because he stays to himself."
He arrived late and scarred, a fourth-round pick literally shot out of the first round when he took a drive-by bullet in the back in his California hometown a week before the draft.
"I'll never forget it. (I'm) looking at my scars every day," Weathersby said. "But I'm not depressed or anything like that. I'll be fine. I'll get through it. It's nothing.
"I'm just going to try and compete, have fun, stay focused, and not be a disappointment," Weathersby said. "That's my main thing. I don't want to be a disappointment because I've been though too much."
All he's looking for is "to get established," get a chance in the rotation at left corner, and some peace of mind. He says he's stronger than last year, and others suggest he looks to be more focused.
"(Playing) is going take my mind off of things ," Weathersby said. "I won't be worrying about because of what happened that's why I'm not doing so good, that's why I'm not out there. Hopefully, when I get out there and start doing what I can do, I'm pretty sure those doubts and doubts about myself I have go out the window pretty much.
"It was a combination of things. (The injury) was the tip of the iceberg," said Weathersby about his lack of playing time. "I'm not using it as an excuse. People go through different things. I deal with it, and try to make the best of it."
Yes, those are Dennis Weathersby quotes. You rarely saw one of those last year. You saw them less than you saw him on the field, where he played in just four games and had no stats. He was always polite. He always knew your name. Now he's stopping to talk to you.
"We're starting to see the Dennis we thought we'd see," Frazier said. "A good guy, a good team player, his teammates enjoy being around him. He's coming out."
Of course, he has to come out. After releasing 191 NFL starts at cornerback in the departures of Jeff Burris and Artrell Hawkins earlier this month, the Bengals have just 52 pro corner starts on their roster. Tory James, coming off his first 16-start season, has 37 of them. Safety Kevin Kaesviharn has 10 of them. All five of Alvin Porter's starts came two years ago.
"We're going to be inexperienced, but it depends how you handle it and I think we're going to handle it fine," Frazier said. "It's not like we're totally green behind the ears. It's not as bad as it could be. We think we'll be OK."
On Wednesday, the Bengals re-signed veteran safety Rogers Beckett and plan to team him with the other safety, veteran free-agent pickup Kim Herring. Frazier likes the experience of his three other players in the secondary.
"Those guys and Tory are going to help Dennis and who ever else we bring in there," he said.
Frazier had hoped it would be Vincent or Taylor. The Bills and Seahawks, respectively, didn't offer that much more money than the Bengals, and maybe even less in Taylor's case. But it was enough.
"Mixed," said Frazier of his reaction. "I'm happy for them because they got what they wanted, but I also think it would have worked out best for them in our uniform. It's hard because of the close relationship I had with those guys. Taylor and I talked about how we knew it was business, but we also know it's really not."
That cornerback could quite possibly come with the 17th pick in the draft next month. But they also feel, at least on paper, Weathersby already gives them a first-round corner. Just when it seemed he had regained his strength from the gunshot wound, Weathersby underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left rotator cuff and had his shoulder cleaned out two months ago, but he says he'll be cleared for the May 7-9 minicamp.
"He has a chance to be special. It's all up to him," Frazier said. "It was like when Deion (Sanders) came into the league. He could have gone either way. Nobody knew how he was going to handle it mentally. And that really is what the league is about. Especially at that position."
It may have taken this long for Weathersby to warm up and get a feel for his surroundings. That would be like him. Roberts has seen him do that on the practice field, and he has heard the lack-of-intensity knock on him for a long time.
"I think people kind of bought into that last year that maybe he was hurt and kind of traumatized," Roberts said. "He makes you think he's lackadaisical, that he doesn't care, but he does care. It can be misconstrued by guys. At the end of the year during practice you could see him (improving). It looks like he's sloughing it around, but it takes him awhile to get ready."
The kid has driven Frazier a bit nuts at times. He looks at his Oregon State tape and his practice tape from here last year and, he wonders, is Dennis moving? Or, he'll watch him in meetings and wonder if he's paying attention.
"But then he can repeat everything back to you. He's very bright. Very sharp. You don't think he's moving on the field, but he's smooth, and then you look up and he's running step for step with Chad Johnson. He's tall and he's a long-strider, so it's going to look like that."
The coaches have told Weathersby about his need to be intense, and he understands. He says he saw it during the week, and especially on game day. This is a guy who has always been an honor student everywhere he's been. He just returned from the Pac 10 awards in Los Angeles, where he got another academic award as Oregon State's Most Outstanding Male Athlete for 2002-03.
"I know they're expecting a lot great things out of me this year," Weathersby said. "There's a lot of pressure. Guys are getting paid now. It's a different approach. It's a job now. With that notion, I try and take it as a professional. I have to take my job real seriously. It's not college anymore. It's the NFL.
"I'm pretty sure it did," said Weathersby, asked if it took him a year to realize it. "I'm pretty sure a lot of guys have come in and not been mature (about) just how important the NFL really is I've seen a lot of veterans get cut (Hawkins, Burris?) and even second-year players (Lamont Thompson?) . . .it tells you what's going on."
Frazier hopes he keeps coming out. He probably will because he's smart enough to know why he didn't as a rookie.
"There was a lot going on last year all at once," Weathersby said. "The only way I could handle it is just staying away from folks."