Defensive in draft?

12-30-03, 7:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Draft gurus are looking at their early first-round projections and predict the Bengals can land one of the NFL Draft's top defensive players with the 17th pick on the weekend of April 24-25.

"There's a good bet they can came out of it with the second best cornerback or maybe the top linebacker," says Jerry Jones, editor of the draft guide The Drugstore List. "Every quarterback, tackle, running back and wide receiver that goes in front of them has to have them cheering."

Some of the names bubbling at No. 17 are USC cornerback Will Poole, and South Carolina cornerback Dunta Robinson, as well as Miami linebackers D.J. Williams and Jon Vilma.

Gil Brandt of NFL.com, who compares the 6-foot, 225-poound Vilma to Cowboys star middle linebacker Dat Nguyen, says Vilma and the 6-1, 245-pound Williams are top ten picks before the juniors declare.

"They can both run like the wind. They can run down plays and chase the ball," Brandt said.

Jones is rooting for offensive players – juniors and seniors – to come flying off the board so the Bengals can get the defender he feels they have to target. By No. 17, two quarterbacks, two offensive tackles, two wide receivers, a tight end if he declares officially, and at least one running back should be gone.

"And then you're going to have that run on defensive linemen at about that point," Jones says. "Late in the top ten and then it usually keeps going. That seems to be a recent trend that teams think that's what you need and that's the only time you can get them. For this year's class of linemen, it all depends which underclassmen come out."

And the run on defensive linemen always seems to drop a skilled player nobody thought would be sitting at, say, No. 17. Brandt and Jones think there could be such a tremendous wide receiver waiting that the Bengals or any other team couldn't pass on him.

Roy Williams of Texas should be gone, but what if Wisconsin's Lee Evans and Oklahoma State's Rashaun Woods aren't? Jones is convinced running back Corey Dillon is gone, but doesn't think the Bengals will leap at a Chris Perry of Michigan early.

"You need a backup, but you can get a backup in the first day or early in the second day," Jones says. "They've got too many pressing needs on defense to do that. Look at where they got Rudi Johnson. In the fourth round. They're out there."

While the Bengals' coaches stay home next week to self-scout their offense and defense and evaluate their personnel, the scouting department heads to California to work the practices for the East-West Shrine Game. Both staffs meet two weeks later in Mobile, Ala., at the Senior Bowl.

POSTS AND PUNTS: Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis got a surprise Tuesday when Steve Spurrier resigned as coach of the Redskins. Speaking on the NFL Network, Lewis talked about the man he helped settle into Washington as his assistant head coach in 2002.

"He just wants to win and if he felt that he wasn't getting his theme, his theory to the players and they weren't understanding the way he wanted to do it," Lewis told the network. "Then he felt like, 'You know what, I've been successful. I know I'm right. I know how to do this. I'm going to move and look for another challenge.'" . . .

The Bengals signed guard-center Thatcher Szalay to a two-year contract extension, running through the 2005 season Tuesday. The 6-4, 303-pound Szalay is now classified as a second-year NFL player in 2004. He was on the Bengals roster for the entire 2002 season, playing in one game. He was on the Bengals' practice squad for Games 1-15 in 2003 and was signed to the 53-player roster on Dec. 22. He was on the inactive list for the finale. . .

TOUGH SKEDDING: When the NFL releases its strength of schedule for 2004, the Bengals have to be the top candidate to lead the list. They play seven teams that won at least 10 games, six playoff teams, and go on the road to play the two teams that have home-field advantage in the postseason.

Yet, you can't beat the marquee value of a schedule that brings to Paul Brown Stadium the team that edged the Bengals for the AFC North title (Baltimore) , the man challenging the Bengals' Marvin Lewis for NFL Head Coach of the Year (Bill Parcells of Dallas), and a former Bengals captain in Buffalo linebacker Takeo Spikes.

Half of the Bengals' home schedule features 10-win teams in Baltimore, Dallas, Miami and Denver, but the Giants, Bills, Browns, and Steelers level off the combined winning percentage to .476.

The Bengals, who won three games on the road for the first time since 1995, go away to play teams with a combined record of .546 in 2003, led by 14-2 New England and 12-4 Philadelphia.

The Bengals do get losing teams on the road such as the Jets, Steelers, and Browns, and they won at two of those places this past season. But 12-4 Tennessee and 10-6 Baltimore provide venues where the Bengals have won once in nine games.

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