Draft still a hit

6-13-03, 3:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals continue to draw rave reviews for the 2003 NFL Draft. The latest critic weighed in this week when Ourlads' Scouting Services gave the club the only excellent grade in its June edition.

"No team in the league got as much out of the early rounds as the Bengals did," Ourlads said. "Their first four choices were all players who were viewed as potential first round candidates. Not only did they get good value with these choices, but they addressed notable team needs, the most significant, of course, being at quarterback."

Ourlads said that quarterback out of USC, first-round selection Carson Palmer, should develop into a "premier," player, and thought the slippage of Iowa guard Eric Steinbach out of the first round "remarkable," and gave the Bengals a "superb second round value."

They admitted injuries to third-rounder Kelley Washington, a wide receiver from Tennessee, and fourth-rounder Dennis Weathersby, a cornerback from Oregon State, had some risk. But, "the upside potential offered by the early picks makes this draft a winner."

Carolina, Dallas, Detroit, Jacksonville, Kansas City, New England, and AFC North rival Baltimore had "above average," drafts. The other two division foes, Cleveland (below average) and Pittsburgh (average) didn't fare as well.

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ARRIVALS:** Expected to make their first visits to Cincinnati Monday are two defensive backs, fourth-round pick Dennis Weathersby, a cornerback from Oregon State, and Rogers Beckett, a waiver wire pickup from San Diego with 29 NFL starts.

GOAL (LINE) TO IMPROVE: If it seemed like the Bengals' offense spent a good chunk of its time in the red zone or on the goal line this spring, it's because they did.

With the quarterback situation set, they were able to use a new head coach's extra minicamps to hone in on the specialty areas that gave them problems last season. They finished next-to-last in the AFC in touchdown percentage in the red zone (45.2 percent) and running back Corey Dillon averaged 3.1 yards per carry in the red zone (49 carries for 153 yards), and 4.3 yards everywhere else.

"We had the advantage over the other teams with the extra camps because we weren't installing a new offense," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "That allowed us more time work on things that we need improvement. Red zone. Goal line. Third down. And just to do the repetition of our base plays. From that standpoint, we got a lot accomplished."

Right tackle Willie Anderson sensed an offensive system that is now going into its third season as "growing," after the staff produced a playbook tweaked with some revamped schemes and techniques.

"There is a lot detail work. A lot more was taught," Anderson said. "Offensively, the coaches are admitting some mistakes they made last season and corrected it. There have been some mistakes that (players) did, and (the coaches) are being men about it, talking about some of the things that went wrong last season and I think that shows we're growing as an offense."

There has been much angst about the crushing failures on the goal line, which left a deep scar on all those involved. In one-touchdown losses to Tennessee and Cleveland, Dillon got stopped on three runs from the 1 in the fourth quarter. It was those plays that probably more than anything sent Dillon into an offseason funk from which he is just now returning.

The second guessing he took following those plays hit him just as hard as the Browns and Titans and it apparently is still a sore spot. Dillon bristled this week when he was asked if the extra upper-body work he has engaged in the weight room will help him on the goal line.

"We weren't good enough in the red zone last year," Dillon said. "Now, if everybody wants to say it's because of me, I couldn't get this, I couldn't get that, well, I guess I'm the only one on the field in goal-line situations. I'm going to take it like I get it. I'm going to ride with it. I'm not too much worried about it. As long as I know the real situation, that's all I'm worried about."

The addition of blocking tight end Reggie Kelly and the fine-tuning of schemes suggests the Bengals don't put the fault entirely on Dillon.

"Let's get that cleared up then," Dillon said. "Where we were at last year just wasn't acceptable. The only way to get better at it is just to work on it."

Anderson began to see the fruits in all phases.

"I think we're getting better and better," Anderson said. "You can tell because at first we were picking up everything the defense gave us, and then they started to do stuff that affected us. But now we're getting better and making some plays, and they were, too. That was the goal. To get everybody running full speed by the time training camp gets here and we did that."

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