4-25-04, 8:35 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
It's funny the way it works out, but the Bengals' coaching assignment in last January's Senior Bowl did end up helping them make their two second-round picks in the secondary in Saturday's NFL Draft.
While they were coaching the North, they were able to watch and spend time with Florida cornerback Keiwan Ratliff and Maryland safety Madieu Williams while watching them practice and play for the South. And with the coaches chuckling at how quickly the South players were going off the board compared to their North squad, it also helped them evaluate how the South players practiced during the week against other first- and second-rounders.
When Williams was tucked safely into the fold with pick No. 56 after Ratliff arrived at No. 49, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier observed, "We've got two more playmakers than we did yesterday."
Ratliff isn't the speed burner, but he anticipates so well and has such good hands that they believe he can step in and play at nickel cornerback right away. Williams doesn't have a big safety name like Sean
Taylor or Sean Jones, but his ability to cover big tight ends and fast slot receivers gives him a good enough shot at starting that the Bengals passed on defensive tackles like Darnell Dockett and Randy Starks at No. 56.
And Dockett was another guy they saw for the South.
"No question it gave us an edge coaching in that game," said secondary coach Kevin Coyle. "We were able to spend some time with them, and interview them beyond the mad crush of the combine. We were even able to get a jump on the tape because our video people put the tapes together for the whole league. It was waiting for us when we got back."
After huddling with their South counterparts from the Chargers, it was clear to Coyle that the 5-10, 192-pound Ratliff was the best corner among a group that included the North's own Will Poole, Ricardo Colclough, and Oklahoma's Derrick Strait. Poole heads into the fourth round undrafted. Colclough went 11 picks before Ratliff to Pittsburgh. Strait went in the third round.
And, head coach Marvin Lewis talked about how the South coaches moved Williams from his in-the-box spot at Maryland to more of a cover guy, a transition the Bengals saw close up and impressed them so much that Coyle believes Williams is the best "in space," safety in the draft.
Some in the Bengals' draft room think he's their best cover safety since a young Darryl Williams arrived in the first round 12 years ago.
And, the Senior Bowl allowed them to evaluate Ratliff in practice against a big, physical speed receiver such as LSU's Devery Henderson. In fact, at No. 49, they were both on the board. The fact they needed a nickel corner more than a speed receiver probably carried the day, and no one was surprised when Henderson went on the next pick, especially Ratliff.
"I told coaches and players that Devery Henderson was my biggest challenge all through my career as cornerback covering a wide receiver because he can flat out run," said Ratliff, who feels the Senior Bowl was his coming out party.
"A lot of teams and a lot of coaches thought I couldn't go out there and be physical with the bigger wide receivers and cover the bigger wide receivers. But I got up and played bump man-to man. I didn't care that they told us to play off man, they were going to have to make me back up. I just wanted to show them I can play on the level of any wide receiver."
He did, in showing them he was the Chris Gamble you didn't hear about. The Bengals were supposed to take Gamble, the Ohio State cornerback from Florida who switched from receiver to corner in the first round. But, actually, Ratliff, the kid from Columbus (Whitehall) who went to Florida as a wide receiver and then switched to corner, is much more polished because he's been doing it longer.
"This is how quick he can adjust and adapt," Coyle said. "He was playing at corner his first game his freshman year even though he was a wideout all through preseason."
When Florida head coach Steve Spurrier moved Ratliff to corner, it devastated him, and he thought about home a lot.
"Yes I was. I considered transferring," Ratliff said. "I called my high school coach and my mom and asked them to find out if Ohio State would take me. If Ohio State would have accepted me as a transfer, I would have gone, but my high school coach didn't get back to me for a couple days, and by that time I had gotten into the swing of things on the defensive side of the ball. I am a football player, and once I get out on the field, I'll play any position."
Like Gamble, Ratliff believes being a receiver helped him. He was the only Division I-A player in 2002 to have a touchdown catch and return an interception for a touchdown.
"It helped me out more than you could imagine," Ratliff said. "As a wide receiver, I got a chance to see the game plans of the offense, what zones receivers like to get to, and where quarterbacks were looking with their first, second, and third reads. That all helped me to study film as a defensive back."
If Ratliff sounds like a bright guy, he is. Coyle said he was one of the most intelligent prospects he interviewed since the season ended, and they believe it's a major reason he had a SEC-leading nine interceptions. He plays sophisticated enough that Coyle compares his awareness in the nickel package to Tampa Bay wide receiver Ronde Barber, like Ratliff, a guy who lives on anticipation instead of speed.
Ratliff, watching the draft from his parents' home, anticipated getting picked because his brother said, "It's about time you get picked." But when Ratliff saw there were seven minutes left on the clock, he didn't think Cincinnati would pick him. Then Coyle called.
"I was a 49er fan," Ratliff said. "But I'm a Bengal fan now. . . I wanted to stay close to home, the Midwest, what better place than Cincinnati?"
But he arrived via Mobile.