4-21-01, 11:20 p.m.
Update:, 4-22-01, 11:25 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals did it again Sunday in the fourth round when they opted for the best player on the board and took Auburn running back Rudi Johnson.
The Bengals thought the 5-10, 225-pound Johnson would go in the second round. Now they have a guy who has a chance at moving past Brandon Bennett, Curtis Keaton and Michael Basnight in backing up Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon.
Despite being named the SEC Player of the Year with nearly 1,600 yards rushing, Johnson's knock is playing just one year of Division I ball. But he did lead Butler County Junior College to two national titles while racking up almost 4,000 yards.
Johnson has been timed at 4.55 seconds in the 40-yard dash, but the Bengals like his balance and ability to catch.
If anyone isn't convinced the Bengals are no longer drafting for need with Dick LeBeau as the head coach, they only had to look at Saturday's second and third rounds of the NFL Draft.
In the second round, with a potential starting left tackle on the board in Michigan's Maurice Williams, the Bengals opted for talented but inexperienced wideout Chad Johnson.
"We thought that Johnson was the one player there that was the best bet to be a difference-maker," said Bengals President Mike Brown of the 36th pick.
Then it really hit home for the 66th pick in the third round. The next three picks after the Bengals took San Jose State tight end Sean Brewer were Florida State cornerback Tay Cody, Notre Dame guard Mike Gandy and Kentucky cornerback Eric Kelly.
Those have always been needy spots for the Bengals. But even with a solid eight-year starter in Tony McGee and Marco Battaglia heading into his fifth season at tight end, the Bengals went out and got the 6-3, 254-pound Brewer and said it's not out of the question he could start eventually.
"We will regard need, but we won't draft from need," LeBeau said. "This
was the fastest tight end in the draft. There have only been two taken in front of him, so he's a pretty lofty tight end who is the fastest tight end. We think that he will challenge for a starting spot."
As the names fell off the board in the third round, the Bengals talked up corners and offensive line. But the consensus was Brewer would be in the lineup before the other players in the grouping at No. 66.
Also hovering over the Bengals' War Room is the pall from a season in which the club threw just six touchdown passes.
"Some times you can do that in one game," said one in the War Room. "You just can't do that."
As LeBeau said, "Guys like Johnson and Brewer stretch the field."
Brewer, the San Jose captain and MVP, ripped off a 4.72 second 40-yard dash at the combine and then threw down a 4.66 a week later.
"He's kind of a throwback guy," said Bengals tight ends coach Frank Verducci of a player who helped running back Deonce Whitaker lead the nation with seven yards per carry. "He's very athletic and very tough, and his best football is ahead of him."
The draftnicks aren't as kind. ESPN's Mel Kiper says only that Brewer has the skills, "to battle his way onto a NFL roster." Joel Buchsbaum of "Pro Football Weekly," wrote, "An enigma. Works out better than he plays. Has never lived up to expectations. . .Must learn to pay greater attention to detail and to really focus on every play if he wants a future in the NFL."
Verducci scoffs, saying Brewer is a better bet than that: "The guy is the consensus third tight end in the draft. This is what you get and it's a quality pick."
Earlier, Verducci observed, "He's got excellent hands and has the ability to run with the ball after the catch, and he's as likely to try to run over you as he is to run around you."
Brewer was surprised he went that high in the third round, but he thought he would go by the end of the round. The former linebacker/defensive end who played one year at Riverside Junior College and three more at San Jose State, understood what the Bengals were talking about when they said they liked his defensive mentality.
"Due to injuries, I went over and played both ways a couple of games," Brewer said. "I caught (29 passes) and we had a great running back. I think tops in the nation, and I just took great pride in run blocking. Go to the second whistle and getting on everybody, that's what they may have been referring to. . .I take a greater pride in run blocking and helping the team than I do catching the ball."
The Bengals are clearly loading up on tight ends, and they still want to re-sign third tight end and long snapper Steve Bush. Battaglia, heading into the last year of his deal, appears to be under the gun.
The club has not only drafted Brewer high, but has brought in free-agent Jason Gavadza, last year's sixth-round pick of the Steelers.