Bengals take speed receiver in third

4-26-03, 5:15 p.m. Updated:
4-26-03, 7:30 p.m. Updated:
4-26-03, 8:50 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals hoped they found the speed receiver to go opposite Chad Johnson when they selected Tennessee's Kelley Washington in the third round of Saturday's NFL Draft.

Earlier in the day, the Bengals, vowing to get younger and more athletic in the interior offensive line, wasted no time with the 33rd pick at the top of the second round.

The 6-2, 220-pound Washington, a former pro baseball player, played just two years at Tennessee and is coming off a neck injury, but he's also coming off a big year in which he showed the ability to dominate games.

Even the No. 1 pick, USC quarterback Carson Palmer, thought the Bengals would go defense in rounds two and three. After all, new head coach Marvin Lewis made his name with defense. But his old teams, the Ravens and Steelers, made the playoffs with drafts in which the top grades carried the day instead of needs. So even though the Bengals are coming off a year in which their defense gave up their second most points ever, they made all offensive picks on the first day.

"They happen to be the best players at that point," Lewis said.

Pleasantly surprised that 6-6, 297-pound Eric Steinbach slid out of the first round, the Bengals took the versatile offensive lineman from Iowa at No. 33.

Steinbach, an All-American guard, anchored a highly-regarded Iowa line that allowed just 11 sacks in 12 games, in a season he was named Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year.

Steinbach is projected to be a future starter at center or guard, but the Bengals won't decide where to line him up at next weekend's minicamp until the dust clears from the NFL Draft. It could very well take them out of the hunt for free-agent centers, such as their own Rich Braham and Tennesse's Gennaro DiNapoli.

But what is clear is that Steinbach's athleticism convinced the Bengals to make him their highest drafted interior offensive lineman in 20 years or so, since they took center Dave Rimington with the 25th pick in 1983 and Brian Blados with the 28th pick in 1984. Blados could play tackle in a pinch, and so can Steinbach. It's the first time they've taken a guard or center in the second round since selecting Arkansas guard Freddie Childress in 1989.

Offensive line coach Paul Alexander, who has never had a guard or center picked that high since he took the job in 1995, knows he got him that high because of his rare athleticism. Plus, Steinbach gives Alexander a backup tackle to go along with Victor Leyva.

"He's a 300-pound man that ran a 4.8 40 (yard dash time)," Alexander said. "Offensive linemen running that speed in the NFL today doesn't really happen. He did over 30 (repetitions) on the bench, squatted 600 pounds three times — 35 and a 1/2 inch vertical jump, so the guy athletically has outstanding numbers. Not only is he a very good player now, but he's a guy that has athletic ability in the future that he can grow into, so we're very happy. (He's) a very productive player now, not really going to take a lot of development and a guy who has a nice upside."

Steinbach offers the kind of athleticism new head coach Marvin Lewis has been seeking since he took the job. Steinbach played basketball, baseball, and track, and he also racked up 26 sacks a defensive player in a prep football career he also played tight end.

Steinbach has been projected as a starting guard/backup tackle, but the Bengals probably see him as a starting guard-center type.

"I don't have a preference," said Steinbach, who last played center during spring ball his sophomore year. I'll play anywhere the coaches want me to. I played guard the past couple of years, so that's probably my comfort position. If the coaches want to put me at tackle, guard or center, I'm going to put 110% at that position."

"He understands the tricks of the trade and has excellent technique," said ESPN's Mel Kiper in his "Draft Report." "When you combine his physical skills and the mental approach he brings to the game, he could end up being a Pro Bowl caliber player at the next level."

Washington, who played pro baseball for three years in the Marlins' system, played just two seasons at Tennessee and only four games last year after a serious whiplash injury to his neck ended his season. He needed surgery, but the Bengals are confident enough in their medical reports that he can line up and practice at this weekend's minicamp.

"We cleared him medically, so it's a non-issue," Lewis said. "He's a big, explosive player and we're fortunate to get him. We actually kind of ranked this was our top guy to get in the third round, so we're excited about it."

Washington led Tennessee with a 1,000-yard receiving season in 2001 with monster games against LSU (256 yards on 11 catches) and Michigan with six catches for two touchdowns in the Citrus Bowl. Before he got hurt last year, he went for 197 yards against Rutgers, as well as 100-yard games against Arkansas and Florida.

"I'm looking forward to using my combination of size and speed," Washington said. "I think the neck is fine. I did well in my workouts."

Bengals receivers coach Alex Wood felt Washington's workout at Tennessee was the best of all the receiver prospects. He sees Washington fitting into the competition at the flanker spot with Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans.

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