Crowded at top

4-12-01, 8:25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals start their draft meetings Monday with the focus on the fourth pick revolving around two left tackles, two wide receivers and a defensive end.

While the rest of the NFL predicts the Bengals to pick Texas left tackle Leonard Davis, Cincinnati is expected to discuss the impact of drafting Davis, Florida right tackle Kenyatta Walker, Michigan wide receiver David Terrell, and Missouri defensive end Justin Smith. The Bengals have also spent a lot of time studying North Carolina State wide receiver Koren Robinson.

The Bengals haven't been contacted about a trade and club president Mike Brown wouldn't rule out one, but he doesn't anticipate it.

On Thursday, Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander said both Davis and Walker are worthy of going in the top five.

Of course, much depends on Arizona at No. 2 and Cleveland at No. 3, and both teams are also sifting through a clump of candidates.

Davis visited the Cardinals Thursday, but they are also reportedly talking about Smith and Florida defensive tackle Gerard Warren. The Browns are looking at running backs, Terrell, and possibly a defensive player.

Alexander has gone to great lengths not to say which tackle he thinks is better. If anything, the 370-pound Davis and the 310-pound Walker provide 60 pounds of contrast.

"Just looking at the left tackles who have been drafted over the last decade years, both of these guys are worthy of one of the top five picks," Alexander said. "They're two different players. Davis is a power, productive player. Walker is an athletic, on the-come type of guy. But I'm sure we'll talk about all the positions."

SMITH RESTS ARM: Quarterback Akili Smith didn't throw Thursday after experiencing some soreness and tenderness in his arm on Wednesday. He'll have a week of rest because the Bengals' coaches are to spend next week closeted in draft meetings.

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski says there's no problem with Smith's arm and that it's a typical condition for a quarterback taking so many snaps at this early point in the season.

"He had a tough day yesterday and we just backed him off," Bratkowski said. "For most of the time he's been here, he's been the only guy throwing. He's had tight ends and wide receivers, so there have been a lot of throws for him."

After his first extended sessions with Smith, Bratkowski is pleased because he's seeing what he saw on film.

"He's making all the throws we've asked him to make," Bratkowski said. "He's got a real good grasp of the offense. He's understanding what we're trying to do.

"He can sit down and talk about it. Even though he didn't throw, he came in today and we reviewed some more cutups. I would say right know, we've accomplished a lot."

COPELAND NOT OPTIMISTIC:John Copeland, dean of the Bengals' defense, figures he's on the way out after the signing of fellow end Kevin Henry.

Copeland, the fifth pick in the 1993 NFL Draft, was taken 103 spots ahead of Henry that year. He thinks after 107 games, 102 starts, 322 tackles, and 24 sacks, this is probably it for him in Cincinnati after an underachieving but solid career.

"Somebody has to go," said Copeland of a defensive line the club has suddenly stockpiled in free agency. "That's what it's looking like."

The Bengals have added Henry and Vikings tackle Tony Williams to a mix that already includes a group of 2000 starters in end Vaughn Booker and tackles Oliver Gibson and Tom Barndt.

But defensive coordinator Mark Duffner says it's premature for Copeland or any other lineman to think they are going to get cut with the roster in its current state.

"You say we've got a lot of ends, but I don't see it that way," Duffner said. "We're going to put our best four guys on the field and go from there. There's going to be competition and that's what we want. John's a valuable guy. He can also play inside for us."

Copeland, 30, was surprised to hear that Henry, a former Steeler, had signed last week and that head coach Dick LeBeau is thinking of moving him to the tight end side. That would move Booker to the other side, which is where Copeland thought he was headed.

"To be honest, I have no idea where I'm going to play," said Copeland, who doesn't want to play tackle any more after playing it for the first time last season. "I know (Henry). We came out together. I met him at the combine and I see him around at different functions. I think he's a damn good player. I've had a chance to see him through his whole career and he always seemed to make some plays whenever they played us."

But you have to figure a team needs at least three ends, and probably four. Copeland looks to be in the top three with Booker and Henry. The guys who appear to be grinding already for work are Reinard Wilson and Jevon Langford.

That could change if another defensive end comes on the market and the Bengals have to bid to get him. Releasing Copeland before June 1 would save the club about $2.1 million under the salary cap. Just before free agency in '98, Copeland signed a five-year deal averaging close to $3 million.

But despite what Duffner says, Copeland thinks he's gone.

"I might not be around here for the competition," Copeland said. "You never want to be cut. By anybody. I have to prepare for the worst. I'd love to stay. I've got a great contract, but they have to do what they think is best for the team." **

JENKINS TALK:** Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of pro/college personnel, spoke Thursday night with the agent for Chargers cornerback DeRon Jenkins. The sides are still hung up on length of the deal and plan to talk Friday.

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