BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ In honor of their rookie cornerback's signing today, here's a look at the Bengals' race in the secondary with the players' years of experience. The big question in this Mark Roman edition is if the Bengals are keeping nine or ten defensive backs. Figure 10, with six cornerbacks and four safeties:
LOCKS: CBs Tom Carter (8), Artrell Hawkins (3), Rodney Heath (2), Mark Roman (R); Safeties Darryl Williams (9), Cory Hall (2), Tremain Mack (4).
LOOKING GOOD: CB Robert Bean (R).
BIG BATTLE: Greg Myers (5) vs. Lawrence Wright (3) at safety.
GRINDING: CBs Brian Gray (R), Roosevelt Blackmon (3), Sirr Parker (1).
PRACTICE SQUAD MATERIAL: JoJuan Armour (2), Gary Thompkins (R)
LOOKING AT PUP: Charles Fisher (2)
Secondary coach Ray Horton, drafted in the second round by the Bengals in 1983, welcomed his fellow second-rounder into camp today. Roman starts out behind Bean and Gray, but there are $1.34 million reasons why Roman makes the club. Even before Roman arrived, Horton has looked like a much different man from last season, back when during most of the year his richest defensive back was making about $300,000.
"It's the best group I've had since we came here (in 1997)," Horton says. "They're still young, but all of a sudden you inject veterans like Tom Carter and Darryl Williams and that has helped the younger guys. They're veterans. They're professionals. They know what the game is about. They know how to prepare."
The up-and-comers are Hall at strong safety and Heath at the third cornerback. Horton says if things break right for the 6-0, 210-pound Hall and the Bengals win, he could go to the Pro Bowl with his smarts, size and speed. And Horton loves the 175-pound Heath, Western Hills High School's gift to the NFL who came out of the arena leagues with his go-through-a-wall mentality. He's small, but Horton compares him to the Rams' London Fletcher, a 5-10 middle linebacker who excels because of heart.
The rap on Carter is he doesn't hit, but his coverage and leadership is the best this group has seen in years. Besides, Hawkins can do the hitting. He got fitted for contacts and was able to read the writing on the wall that the club wasn't pleased with his play last season and hit camp stronger and more focused.
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"Rodney started last year (as a rookie) for us at times and did well," Horton said. "His one downgrade is his size, but you can't measure his heart. With a lot of teams using three wide receivers, you have to be comfortable playing with your fourth cornerback. I feel very solid with the first three and with the mix that's falling in between all those young guys, I'm going to be OK."
Of those young guys, the 5-1, 178-pound Bean is the eye opener. When they drafted him in the fifth round, the Bengals didn't think his body would be ready for the NFL this year. But his long arms, speed and knack for being around the ball make him a factor because, "he makes a play every day in practice and in the (preseason opener) he had two tackles for a loss and almost had an interception," Horton says.
Gray, a bump-and-run type, has impressed with his size and strength, but he's blown some coverages. Blackmon is just now feeling his way back from the ankle surgery that wiped out half of last season and kept him from getting cleared to play until camp started.
The Wright-Myers matchup is interesting. Wright is faster, bigger and shared the special teams tackling title with Canute Curtis last year. But Wright has no career starts while Myers has 34. Armour, the two-time Mid-American Defensive Player of the Year as a Miami linebacker, hasn't been able to progress in his transition to safety with a groin injury that might keep him out the entire preseason.
With the depth at cornerback, Fisher could go on the reserve physially unable to perform list (PUP) and be ineligible to play until the season's sixth game. That would give last year's second-rounder more time to recover from a devastating knee injure in which he tore three ligaments.