BY GEOFF HOBSON
INDIANAPOLIS _ The top cornerbacks in the NFL Draft worked out in the RCA Dome Monday after a weekend the Bengals made off-the-street free agent Rodney Heath their second highest paid cornerback for the 2001 season.
Heath has turned into a solid player and great nice-local-guy-makes-good story. But it also tells you in the last three years, the Bengals haven't exactly found a corner on the market despite taking one in the second round every April.
So don't look for them to take a corner just to bolster a weak spot this April 21.
"We tried to fill a need when we drafted at cornerback the last three years," said Bengals President Mike Brown Monday. "We learned then we weren't going to draft just to fill needs. We're going to take someone there who is the best prospect."
Last year in the second round, the consensus is that would have been Arizona State left tackle Marvel Smith, a prospect projected as a 10-year starter. But the Bengals needed
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a starter at cornerback and opted for LSU's Mark Roman, a converted safety who held out for the first three weeks of training camp.
"That's devastating for a rookie. He forfeits a season," Brown said. "But I don't give up on any of these guys. They all have chinks in their armor, but they show things we want to see."
Roman rarely gives a receiver a cushion when it comes to taking a receiver one-on-one. Charles Fisher is rangy and athletic. Artrell Hawkins is fast and fearless taking on the run.
But Roman has to prove he has cornerback speed, Fisher's knee blew up in the first quarter of his career, and Hawkins struggles playing the ball.
Still, as Jim Lippincott looked at Monday's workout, the Bengals director of college/pro personnel, he didn't see a player who could come in and start in Cincinnati in '01. And he didn't see much difference from the current crop than the Hawkins-Fisher-Roman trio.
"You would look at them and say they belong out here," Lippincott said. "Sure, all of these guys aren't perfect. If they were, they'd be going in the top 10 because of the value of the position."
But there is no Charles Woodson or Champ Bailey in this group. Fred Smoot, the Mississippi State teammate of Bengals rookie corner Robert Bean, has a shot at being the first corner taken.
But probably not until late in the first round and when he goes it will spark the obligatory run on cornerbacks where the top three or four fall off the board in the next 10 picks or so.
"If we think there's a corner there that's the best player, we'll do it," Lippincott said.
But given the deep field of wide receivers, defensive tackles and guards, this doesn't look like a corner year in round two for the Bengals.
Kansas State safety Jarrod Cooper and Notre Dame cornerback Brock Williams ran Monday's fastest 40-yard times in the two groups. And while Williams may have run his way into the first day of the draft, he's still only 5-9.
The problem for 6-1 Gary Baxter of Baylor is he may be too tall to make the moves of a cornerback and looks to be a safety.
Syracuse's Will Allen flashed his great speed, but one AFC defensive coordinator said, "He always gets beat on tape."
Florida State's Tay Cody has instincts, but he's only 5-9 and 173 pounds.
Of course, Heath has similar size and has turned into a find. But they view him more as a No. 3 corner and still covet a No. 1 guy.
But probably not this year. Maybe not in the second round.
The Bengals have no problem tracking last year's second-round call. The AFC Central Steelers took Smith four picks after Roman.