Fast track

INDIANAPOLIS - Here are Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin on thepodium Friday at the NFL scouting combine as the draft's two topreceivers. But what can the Bengals possibly say about picking them atNo. 6 when they don't really know if their second-round draft pick fromlast year can play?

The curious case of rookie wide receiver Jerome Simpson'sone-catch season has head coach Marvin Lewis looking at a new emphasison finding out what kids can do sooner rather than later.

He admits it's "a balancing act." He says if there is onething Bengals president Mike Brown asks him to do it's "try and pushthe young players to see what they can do." But he also knows what thenatural inclination of a coach is.


Lewis
"It's the nature to go with the guy that makes less error," Lewis saidof veterans. "But it comes to a point where you have to have big playsand more productive plays."

Lewis says it's up to the coaches to find "the avenue" to makeyoungsters productive, but he's also calling on his veterans to be moreof a factor with the kids and is hoping quarterback Carson Palmerpitches in.

"I told our quarterback that; don't get frustrated by(Simpson)," Lewis said. "You've got to find a way to take him by thefacemask and find a way to develop a relationship with him becausehere's a guy with pure athletic talent and we've got to figure out away to get him to learn and be productive as far as the mental part ofthe game and the adjustments he needs to do as a wide receiver."

Lewis says it is important to get a grasp of what a player cando so the club can do what it did to players like offensive linemanAndrew Whitworth and defensive tackle Domata Peko before their thirdseasons and locked them up with sane long-term deals.

"It puts some money in his pocket out front and it gets you toextend him out to the mid part of his career and go from there. It's awin-win for both sides," Lewis said.

He praised defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and defensive linecoach Jay Hayes for working in third-rounder Pat Sims in the defensivetackle rotation and Lewis feels like he got a good grasp ofsixth-rounder Corey Lynch blossoming at safety before he got hurt inthe middle of the season.

A prime example of how the Bengals were able to work in arookie was the last six games of the year when Anthony Collins startedat left tackle and now they have a chance to evaluate him against thisyear's top tackles in the draft.

Lewis says the most important thing is to get something out of rookies right away.

Anything.

"As coaches and the organization, you've got to be able toproject the niche for that guy to be successful," he said. "Whatever itmay be. Carrying the water bottles. I don't care what it is. He's gotto be doing something that he's very comfortable doing; that he wasdoing on his campus."

Guys that Lewis feels comfortable with, besides Sims, Collins,Lynch and first-rounder Keith Rivers, are third-year cornerback DavidJones and right end Antwan Odom in his second year after signing thebiggest free-agent deal in club history. He liked their toughness andwas particularly impressed with how Jones started late in the year inplace of the injured Johnathan Joseph despite playing on a bad kneethat has since been scoped.

Lewis also said he likes what defensive linemen Frostee Ruckerand Jon Fanene finally looked like after long waits to get on the fieldin '09 and the way safety Chinedum Ndukwe decided to play on a sorefoot in the last couple of games.

No question if the Bengals drafted Crabtree or Maclin that theywould play right away even though they are different types ofreceivers. On Friday, the 6-1, 215-pound Crabtree responded beingcompared to Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald by putting Chad Ocho Cinco andSteve Smith in the same category.

The 6-0, 198-pound Maclin is a burner that has run as fast as4.31 seconds in the 40-yard dash and says he patterns himself afterSmith, Santana Moss, Torry Holt and Marvin Harrison. He'd also be inthe lineup right away and would also return punts in some role.

SLANTS AND SCREENS

What isn't being said is that it looks like left tackle Levi Jonesisn't coming back, but the Bengals probably won't make a move untilafter the draft. Instead, Lewis on Friday thought back to two and halfyears ago when the Bengals traveled to Indianapolis for the 2006preseason finale and finding out that right tackle Willie Anderson hadagreed to a contract extension a month after Jones did. Injuries havesince driven Anderson to Baltimore and Jones to the brink.

"That was big to have those guys signed," said Lewis, callingthat bus trip "euphoric." "Those guys jumped in the boat after we triedto sign Eric (Steinbach) and they (were asking) 'What about me?' Butthat was then and this is now."

Lewis thinks wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh won't take a deal because "it's a dollar more."

Asked about Lewis' comments that suggested he'll be back, Ocho Cinco politely declined comment: "It's the offseason."

Lewis thinks that going 4-11-1 last year made him a better coachand the Bengals a better team because everyone understood the mostminute of things "were huge," he said. "We had a season where every winwas a big deal. This year every yard, every possession, it could not gounnoticed no matter what it was."

But it wasn't a play from this year that summed it for him. Hehad to go back to his fifth game as a head coach, when the Bengals lostby a touchdown in overtime in Buffalo in 2003.

"(On third down) we were backed up and chose to throw the ballbecause I didn't interject myself and it goes incomplete," he said."They get the ball on our 49, kick a field goal and we lose the game inovertime."

Lewis had to deal with the wind and weather this past seasonmore than any other in his six years and while he coped with that hewatched defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer shut down the offense's"biggest threat and make them go to their second and third option andbe able to hang in games that way," he said. "I think our players havea better sense of that now."

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