4-24-04, 4:35 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals pulled one of the surprises of the first round of Saturday's NFL Draft when they opted for Michigan running back Chris Perry with the 26th pick, bypassing a cornerback in Ohio State's Chris Gamble as well as the draft's consensus top running back in Oregon State's Steven Jackson.
The Bengals, just five days after they traded their all-time rusher in Corey Dillon, had a shot to take any running back on the board at No. 24. But they made their third trade in 15 days on the clock when they swapped first-round picks with the Rams.
Cincinnati moved down two spots to No. 26 and picked up another fourth-round pick when the Rams gave them the 123rd selection. The Bengals now have three fourth-round picks with the slots at Nos. 114 and 117 and eight in the first four rounds, matching the 1984 take
St. Louis took Jackson at No. 24, and the Bengals then took the 6-foot, 225-pound Perry in an effort to back up Rudi Johnson with a durable runner capable of carrying the ball for long stretches.
Although Perry may lack the size of Dillon, he is as fast and many regard him as the most complete big back in the draft with excellent hands as well as a track record of four-yard-per-carry reliability in the Big Ten. He averaged five yards per carry, had eight 100-yard days, and caught 44 balls this season for the Wolverines.
Perry was versatile enough to set a school-record 51 carries against Michigan State and catch 11 balls for 122 yards when Michigan fell behind to Minnesota. Perry beat Ohio State with more than 200 total yards, 154 of them rushing.
Johnson is clearly the Bengals' top back after becoming the first player in team history to have three 150-yard rushing games in the same year last season, but his future is unclear. He figures to be close to signing the one-year, $1.8 million tender for a restricted free agent, but his agent has yet to have discussions with the Bengals about a long-term deal.
The Bengals have two veteran running backs in Kenny Watson and Skip Hicks that they think can be good spot players. Watson rushed for 534 yards in 2002 as a backup in Washington, and Hicks is having a good season in NFL Europe.
But the Bengals have never been shy about having enough big, bell-cow running backs. After Ickey Woods finished off his Rookie of the Year season in 1988, the Bengals took UCLA running back Eric Ball with their first pick in the '89 draft and Harold Green of South Carolina in the second round of 1990. Two years after the Bengals took Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter with the No. 1 overall pick in 1995, the Bengals took Dillon in the second round.
Perry has that versatility in the passing game that some felt Dillon never gave the Bengals.
After rushing for 495 yards as a sophomore, Perry served notice with a 1,110-yard junior season with 14 touchdowns, and his 108 receiving yards against Florida helped him earn the MVP of the Outback Bowl. He went for 1,674 yards and 18 touchdowns on 338 carries this year on his way to the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top back.
Ironically, Perry and Johnson both had great prep careers in Virginia. Johnson set records at Thomas Dale in Ettrick, Va., while Perry led Fork Union Military Academy to the state title his senior year after rolling up 4,678 yards and 71 touchdowns in his career.