Carson's Crew tries to catch on

7-15-04, 4:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

**Bengals.com takes a look at each position as the first practice of training camp on July 31 closes in. Pro Bowler Chad Johnson leads a field of 12 wide receivers. With no depth chart yet released, this is merely a thumbnail sketch setting the field. (Years of experience in parenthesis).

INCUMBENT STARTERS:Chad Johnson (4), Peter Warrick (5).

RETURNING VETERANS:T.J. Houshmandzadeh (4), Kevin Walter (2), Kelley Washington (2).

FREE-AGENT VETERAN:** Patrick Johnson (7).

FIFTH-ROUND PICK: Maurice Mann (R). **

ANOTHER TRY:** Adam Ziesel (1).

COLLEGE FREE AGENTS: Jamall Broussard (R), Jay Chapman (R), Marlus Mays (R), Lance Young (R). **

PROBABLE ROSTER SPOTS:** Six (one or two on practice squad).

They are now Carson's Crew and Palmer has a Pro Bowler to go to right away in Chad Johnson. He certified his game-breaking status with a NFL-best seven catches of at least 40 yards and an AFC-leading 1,355 yards last season.

As voluble as he is valuable, Johnson has joined head coach Marvin Lewis as the faces of the franchise. Complete with Chad-sized billboards around town selling tickets by invoking his prediction last year of the upset over the Chiefs with the catch phrase "Guaranteed Fun."

But one thing that may be guaranteed is Lewis reminding him at some point of his numbers last December when the Bengals lost huge games against Baltimore and Cleveland: a combined six catches for 44 yards and no touchdowns.

The most improved Bengal of all during the spring camps was probably Washington, last year's third-rounder who had some big third-down catches in a 22-catch rookie year. His route running and quickness now seem to have caught up with his sleek 220-pound strength and gives them the potential of freeing up Johnson from those down-field double teams that hampered him late in the season.

People shouldn't get excited about whether Washington or Warrick starts opposite Johnson. They are both going to play plenty in three-receiver sets with Warrick coming off his best season (79 catches, 819 yards, seven touchdowns) as a staple in the slot.

His recovery from the knee cartilage he tore late last season is something to watch, though, because he rested it for much of spring camp. But he's been saying all along he'll be ready for July 31.

The receiver that nobody talks about just may have the most valuable niche in the corps next to Chad Johnson. The Bengals picked up Eastern Michigan's Kevin Walter off waivers at the end of training camp last season after the Giants cut their seventh-rounder and he became one of their most important special teams players. In 11 games, Walter had six tackles as a flyer on the punt cover team and a kick cover guy, and he never seems to drop a pass in practice or a game, where he had three catches. He may be able to help in the slot as well.

Warrick's rehab and nagging injuries to newcomer Patrick Johnson brought Houshmandzadeh out of mothballs and reminded people he did catch 41 balls in 2002 as well 0 in an injury-plagued '03.

The Housh Hamstring gave him no problems and he re-asserted himself as a reliable route runner with even surer hands, and good knowledge of the system. With Warrick out, he took plenty of reps in the slot and looks to be the next guy there if Warrick is limited early. In fact, Houshmandzadeh can play all the spots.

But he knows he has to stay healthy. A heel injury in preseason also limited his rookie season to 12 games and 21 catches.

Patrick Johnson is working on his fourth team in four years, but Lewis saw him up close and personal for four seasons in Baltimore and likes his work ethic as well as his down-field speed. Since they recently changed his position from WR to WR/KR, they are no doubt asking him to repeat his rookie magic, when he returned 16 of his 31 career kicks for a 24.9 average and a touchdown.

Ability to replace kick returner Brandon Bennett could hold the key for some of the wideouts to make the team. It would help fifth-rounder Maurice Mann, who averaged 20.7 yards on his 15 returns for Nevada last season. The 6-2, 185-pound Mann has some size and speed and got singled out by Lewis at the mandatory minicamp. He'll be looking to catch the ball better and have a firmer grasp of the offense once camp starts.

The locals may recall San Jose State's Broussard using his speed to burn eventual national champion Ohio State on nine catches in 2002, but he only goes 5-9 and 172 pounds.

Iowa State's Young is a polished guy with 10 career touchdown caches while averaging 21.2 yards on 47 college kick returns.

The 6-2, 220-pound Chapman switched from tight end to receiver during his career at Division II St. Augustine's College. The 6-0, 204-pound Mays averaged 17.5 yards per his 116 catches at Northern Iowa even though much of his senior year (30 catches for 493 yards and five touchdowns) was marred by a hamstring injury.

The 6-2, 194-pound Ziesel, out of Missouri Western, had a lot of admirers last year in his rookie camp for his hands and toughness. Before getting cut, he attempted to play through a sprained shoulder and had a leaping touchdown catch in the intrasquad scrimmage. He was impressive enough to get a rare invite back. He got nosed out of a spot in NFL Europe this spring when the league was overstocked with receivers. The league decided to keep only those with the most pro experience even though some felt Ziesel was good enough to play.

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