Fullback fills up

4-4-03, 12:40 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals have gone from having a Pro Bowl fullback in Lorenzo Neal to three question marks as the potential lead blocker for Corey Dillon. But with his first minicamp next weekend, head coach Marvin Lewis is unfazed and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has no plans to rip up his offense and start drawing up one-back sets.

"If you mean, am I lying awake at night thinking about it, no," Bratkowski said. "But there's no question we've got to find someone. We have to determine how good he is going to be before we can decide how much we're going to use him. The good thing is that we have time and there are guys still out there and in the draft."

Coping with the free-agent losses of Neal and his backup, Nicolas Luchey, may have revealed more about Lewis than his re-shuffling of the defense last month. He has eschewed such veteran free-agents as Marc Edwards, Mack Strong, even an old friend from Baltimore in Sam Gash.

The key word there is "old." Instead, Lewis has opted for three players who are mainly served by their youth and their willingness to do the grime and punishment of the job.

They added their most experienced guy Thursday when they claimed Tennessee's Mike Green off waivers, an intriguing, well-respected guy among the Titans' coaching staff who once led NFL Europe in rushing. But he's just 26 and is trying to find a niche after three years of being seen as both a running back and fullback.

Chris Edmonds is working there this spring, his third position in the league and the first time he's ever played it in his life. Terry Witherspoon has played in only three NFL games and never carried the ball. But both are only 25 and are going into just their third year in the league. If they add another, it's probably going to be via the draft.

"I'm willing to do anything to stay here," said Edmonds, signed as a linebacker and switched to tight end last year. "I know I can catch and I know I can block because of the other two positions I've played. I know I'm running out of time because there is no practice squad for me this year."

Lewis knows fullback is a key spot, but he also knows he's going to be on the field 40 percent of the time, at most, and it's probably closer to 30 percent. His qualifications are just like every other position. He wants athletic guys who can run and (this seems to be unspoken), salaries to match the play time. Witherspoon and Edmonds are making minimum and the Bengals absorb the one-year tender that Green signed with the Titans last month at $605,000 as a restricted free agent.

"Chris is a guy who has been around here and is a big, athletic guy," Lewis said. "He's going to be the kind of guy who is going to do what's asked at that position."

The 6-3, 250-pound Edmonds was an All-American tight end at his Pittsburgh-area high school before they made him a linebacker at West Virginia. But the last time he carried a ball was on the playground. He never did it once the pads went on at 10 years old.

"I've been watching guys take handoffs for years," said Edmonds, who knows that will be the least of his worries. "It looks like they just take it and go. Just take it and go. I think I can do that."

Bratkowski can't begin to project what to make of Edmonds: "With a guy making a move like that, the only way you're going to know how it works out is seeing him play in games."

The 6-0, 250-pound Green is an interesting player. After taking him in the seventh-round out of Houston in 2000, some segments of the Titans coaching staff preferred Green in some roles over Greg Comella, a player with a batch of guaranteed money, according to the buzz out of Nashville. And Green ended up splitting time with Comella last season, carrying 21 times for 71 yards while catching seven passes for 57 yards, and a touchdown. He has been credited with being a willing blocker and special teams player, which is all Lewis needs to hear.

"He's an athletic guy who has been in the league and played the position in the NFL," Bratkowski said.

Bratkowski has no plans to junk the I formation, or another forms of the two-back set because he is still seeking a lead blocker. But he also wants a fullback who can catch. They may not have the crushing lead blocks of Neal, but the Bengals look to be seeking more versatile players at that spot.

"It's hard to find a guy who is a great lead blocker and is also a threat catching the ball," Bratkowski said. "I'm not sure many of those guys actually exist. We have to see how good we are there and then we'll be able to tell how often we can (formation-wise) use him and where."

Green's signing bites into half of what they saved when they released defensive end Vaughn Booker Tuesday. That working number was about $1.3 million because Booker's cap number for '03 went from $2.6 million to $1.3 after the release.

But Green, who was a restricted free agent before signing a one-year deal last month, puts $605,000 back into the mix as the Bengals keep flirting around the $4 million mark under the cap, which is about how much they need to sign their draft picks.

The Titans withdrew the tender from Green and cut him Tuesday in order to re-sign center Tom Ackerman.

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