Cornering the options

3-29-02, 6:05 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

(Another in a series of position breakdowns in preparation for the April 20-21 NFL Draft with player rankings a compilation of rankings by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., Pro Football Weekly's Joel Buchsbaum, and The Drugstore List's Jerry Jones)

Never have the Bengals drafted a college cornerback in the first round who ended up playing the position in Cincinnati.

But the streak could very well end next month if one Phillip Buchanon of Miami of Florida is still there at the Bengals' No. 10 spot.

That's even though they have signed two starting cornerbacks.

That's even though several mock drafts (including Buchsbaum) predict Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington is going to be available for the Bengals.

That's even though the more immediate needs for an impact player in the first three rounds are at tight end, safety, quarterback and kicker.

That's even though there is a healthy chance some teams see the 10th spot as the last chance at getting a premium defensive lineman and will offer a trade down the Bengals would love to consider.

That's how good the 5-10, 185-pound Buchanon is. Bengals President Mike Brown compares him to six-time Bengals Pro Bowler Lemar Parrish. Jim Lippincott, the club's director of pro/college personnel, is excited about Buchanon's explosion and ability to break open a game.

<tr>
  <td height="14" width="157">Philipp Buchanon</td>
  <td height="14" width="54">Miami</td>
  <td height="14" width="38">5-10</td>
  <td height="14" width="39">175</td>
</tr>
<tr>
  <td height="14" width="157">Lito Sheppard</td>
  <td height="14" width="54">Florida</td>
  <td height="14" width="38">5-9</td>
  <td height="14" width="39">193</td>
</tr>

10 Top Cornerbacks

NAME SCHOOL HT WT
Quentin Jammer Texas 6-0 196
Derek Ross Ohio St. 6-0 196
Mike Rumph Miami 6-1 196
Keyuo Craver Nebraska 5-10 188
Roosevelt Williams Tuskegee 5-11 200
Sheldon Brown S.Carolina 5-9 194
Mike Echols Wisconsin 5-9 175
Andre Lott Tenn. 6-0 196

"We could stand pat with our corners right now and be happy with our starters and depth," said Duke Tobin, director of pro/college personnel. "We don't have to reach for a corner (in the first round) now. But you're not going to pass up a Pro Bowl player to take a good player."

The other Pro Bowl cornerback prospect is Texas' Quentin Jammer,

who figures to be long gone at No. 3 by Detroit or at No. 6 by Dallas. The Bengals don't want to reveal how they rate the other corners, but draft gurus project a group of about four to six other players who could be available when the Bengals pick in the second round at No. 41 and third round at No. 73 who could step in and be one of the top three cornerbacks at some point in their rookie season.

But since they can line up at corner the way they are with starters Jeff Burris and Artrell Hawkins, Kevin Kaesviharn as the nickel back, and a scrum for the fourth corner between one-time starters Rodney Heath, Mark Roman, and Robert Bean, this could also be the second straight draft they don't take a corner.

But they've only gone back-to-back drafts without taking a cornerback in at least the sixth round just twice. From 1995-97, they took no corners. From 1970-72, they took one in the seventh, eighth, and 10th rounds, respectively.

So odds are they will come out of here with somebody.

"After the first two guys, you've got some very good players who maybe are short by an inch or slow by a tenth," Lippincott said. "Sheppard is a two-way player. He gives you an excellent kick return man and a very, very, good cover corner."

Which is why Sheppard probably won't be there at No. 41. But he's not in the top 10 because of his size. Ross has all the tools, but he could slip out of the first round because of what the gurus call "a lack of discipline," and because his 40-yard dash times haven't been sparkling.

"He'll need a coach to sit on him," said Jerry Jones, the former Cincinnati pharmacist who authors "The Drugstore List." "But he's got good hands with seven interceptions this year and he's good in run support."

With Ross' head coach at Ohio State, John Cooper, now a Bengals' consultant, the club figures to have an excellent read on a kid that Cooper admires as a guy and player despite some scrapes with the law regarding traffic problems.

Nebraska's Craver is getting some nicks on him (Buchsbaum: "seems to give up one big play every game") and he isn't as highly rated as when he went to the Senior Bowl. But the Bengals still love the fact he started every game at cornerback for the last three Cornhusker seasons.

"He may have slipped in some people's minds, but we still consider him a top prospect," Tobin said. "He's got a lot of experience against excellent competition."

Other guys who could come in and help at some point in '02 are Miami's Rumph and South Carolina's Brown. Some are down on Rumph's athletic abililty and tackling. But other gurus rate him as the third best corner because he's got the ideal NFL big-corner size with long arms and legs who knocks receivers off the line.

Jones, whose website drugstorelist.com lists Brown's 40-yard work-out time as 4.37 seconds, is high on his quickness and change of direction. But he's a little short on height.

Height is what could push some guys deep into the third round and get them labeled as question marks when it comes to contributing their rookie year.

Echols is tiny at 175 pounds, is fighting diabetes by giving himself daily shots, and he has been outmuscled by the big receivers. But just imagine if he was 5-11 because he also has a lot of positives.

Buchsbaum says he, "has tremendous character," and is durable, agile, and good in press coverage.

"We don't see diabetes as a problem," Lippincott said. "We've had at least one guy here with it (former offensive lineman Jay Leeuwenburg) and he was fine."

Lippincott loves everything about Oregon's Rashad Bauman, but at 5-8 it is tough love: "You look at his speed, ball skills, change of direction and he probably plays as well as anybody. But he sure is tiny."

If it is not height, it is also level of competition in college. Also fighting the one-knick knock is Tuskegee's Williams.

"Tries to bait receivers by playing off and then breaking," Buchsbaum writes. "Which may work on Division-II level, but will get you killed in the NFL unless you're a young Deion Sanders."

Williams is no Deion Sanders, but he's not exactly Colonel Sanders, either. He was a college decathlete who has shown the ability to not only play the ball, but get his hands on it, as well as knocking around receivers. The Bengals liked the way he threw his weight around at the Division I Senior Bowl.

"He has good size and a lot of traits you're looking for," Tobin said. "He's a press corner and with his size there's a lot of upside. The question is can he make the jump from Tuskegee. At the Senior Bowl, he was not a fish out of water. He showed some flashes that he can be a very good NFL player."

If the Bengals are looking for a corner to help them at some point in '02, Jones said they have to find him in the first two and a half rounds, which may or may not include that third-round pick.

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