Fast track

Posted: 7:45 a.m.

INDIANAPOLIS - Here are Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin on the podium Friday at the NFL scouting combine as the draft's two top receivers. But what can the Bengals possibly say about picking them at No. 6 when they don't really know if their second-round draft pick from last year can play?

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

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

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Lewis

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

Lewis says it's up to the coaches to find "the avenue" to make youngsters productive, but he's also calling on his veterans to be more of a factor with the kids and is hoping quarterback Carson Palmer pitches 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 the facemask and find a way to develop a relationship with him because here's a guy with pure athletic talent and we've got to figure out a way to get him to learn and be productive as far as the mental part of the 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 can do so the club can do what it did to players like offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth and defensive tackle Domata Peko before their third seasons and locked them up with sane long-term deals.

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

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

A prime example of how the Bengals were able to work in a rookie was the last six games of the year when Anthony Collins started at left tackle and now they have a chance to evaluate him against this year'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 to project the niche for that guy to be successful," he said. "Whatever it may be. Carrying the water bottles. I don't care what it is. He's got to be doing something that he's very comfortable doing; that he was doing on his campus."

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

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

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

The 6-0, 198-pound Maclin is a burner that has run as fast as 4.31 seconds in the 40-yard dash and says he patterns himself after Smith, Santana Moss, Torry Holt and Marvin Harrison. He'd also be in the lineup right away and would also return punts in some role.

SLANTS AND SCREENS
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What isn't being said is that it looks like left tackle Levi Jones isn't coming back, but the Bengals probably won't make a move until after the draft. Instead, Lewis on Friday thought back to two and half years ago when the Bengals traveled to Indianapolis for the 2006 preseason finale and finding out that right tackle Willie Anderson had agreed to a contract extension a month after Jones did. Injuries have since driven Anderson to Baltimore and Jones to the brink.

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

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

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

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

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

"(On third down) we were backed up and chose to throw the ball because 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 in overtime."

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

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