Dillon in fast company

7-06-01, 1:40 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

At least one veteran NFL observer agrees with the franchise-record deal the Bengals gave running back Corey Dillon two months ago.

Joel Buchsbaum of "Pro Football Weekly," rated Dillon one of the NFL's top 50 players in the magazine's 2001 preview.

Dillon, heading into the first season of a five-year, $26.1 million deal, is the only Bengal to make the big list and the highest-rated Cincinnati player at his position.

Told "PFW," had him as the league's fifth best running back, Dillon said, "Don't tell me. Let me guess. Edgerrin. Eddie. Marshall. And

probably Fred."

Dillon nailed it, although Buchsbaum's order ahead of Dillon is the Rams' Marshall Faulk, the Colts' Edgerrin James, the Titans' Eddie George, and the Jaguars' Fred Taylor.

Takeo Spikes is Buchsbaum's sixth best outside linebacker. The Bengals fared best at offensive tackle, where they had their remaining top-ranked players. Right tackle Willie Anderson ("When his weight is down and his mind is focused, he is as good as anyone,") is ranked ninth and new left tackle Richmond Webb ("was underachieving and going to Pro Bowls, but now he is playing at a solid, consistent level,") showed up 19th.

"It doesn't matter where they put you on a list like that," Dillon said. "Just to be mentioned with those guys is an honor. That's all I've ever really wanted. To be put in the same class. I mean, it's so hard to say. If Fred stays healthy, he may have us all beat. And Eddie is like my clone now, I guess. I've looked up to him and admired him because I think we've got similar styles."

Dillon is ahead of Curtis Martin, Jamal Lewis, Jerome Bettis, Warrick Dunn and Duce Staley in the top ten of running backs.

"PFW" ranked Dillon 29th overall with a grade of 4.0 that denotes "blue chip; Pro Bowl player playing at a Pro Bowl level." He's slotted behind Tennessee cornerback Samari Rolle and ahead of Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister.

"When you think of all the great players in this league and they've got you that high, it's all a bit humbling," Dillon said.

Spikes is the only defensive player to be ranked, but middle linebacker Brian Simmons is pegged with "Youngsters to watch," and defensive end Justin Smith is one of the "Rookies to watch," along with the 49ers' Andre Carter and the Packers' Jamal Reynolds.

With a grade of 3.5, Spikes sits behind a top five of Junior Seau, Derrick Brooks, Mo Lewis, Donnie Edwards, and Jamie Sharper.

Peter Warrick ("Could emerge") and Chad Johnson ("Rookies to watch") made wide receiver the Bengals' most decorated position other than tackle.

And it continues to be a bare-knuckled fact this is going to be third-year quarterback Akili Smith's make-or-break season. Buchsbaum puts him in the list of quarterbacks who are "At a Crossroads," joining Arizona's Jake Plummer, Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart, Miami's Jay Fiedler, Buffalo's Rob Johnson, Seattle's Matt Hasselback, Chicago's Cade McNown, and Dallas' Tony Banks.

"With the addition of Richmond Webb to protect his blindside and a vastly improved group of receivers with speed," Buchsbaum writes, "Smith has no more excuses and must get the job done."

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