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Hobson's Choice: Any happy returns?

Q: In my opinion someone else should return punts instead of Ratliff. I wanted to know if the Bengals were thinking the same thing, and if you knew of anyone that they were thinking of.
--Josh C., Dayton, OH

JOSH: They've been looking for someone else, it seems, forever. But be careful for what you wish. Ratliff has automatic hands, fumbling just three punts in his career.

And one in the last two seasons, when he had 78 chances.

That's three out of 100 because he's had 72 returns and 28 fair catches during his three seasons with the downside a career average of just 7.5 yards after a year the Bengals finished 29th in the NFL in punt returns.

They wanted to replace Ratliff last year, and it was a major reason they signed free agent wide receiver Antonio Chatman after a 2005 season Chatman turned in the NFL's longest return on an 85-yarder in his last game as a Green Bay Packer.

The Bengals also had hopes wide receiver Tab Perry could add punts to his kick return duties following a rookie season he broke all the club's season kick return records.

But all that went by the boards when Chatman and Perry missed virtually all last season, Chatman with a groin injury and Perry with a hip.

Cornerback Deltha O'Neal is a Pro Bowl-type returner with a 10.1-yard career average (Dante Hall has a 10.0), but he was beat up last year, too, and you just can't see one of your top cornerbacks doing it with any kind of regularity.

And, remember, O'Neal's Bengals debut was delayed when he wrecked his ankle on a punt return in the preseason opener of '04.

Which is a reason not to expect rookie cornerback Leon Hall to be back there, either, with the Bengals No. 1 pick. Hall has been catching punts this spring and he returned one out of 15 at Michigan for a touchdown. He's shown good hands but he's too valuable to do it.

Skyler Green, the rookie LSU wide receiver the Bengals picked up on waivers from Dallas at the end of last season, is an intriguing candidate after a record-breaking career in Baton Rouge.

Green, who set an LSU record with four career touchdowns off punt returns, returned five punts for the Cowboys last season for 26 yards with a long of 13. He returned a dozen in the preseason for an 8.6 average.

The 5-9, 190-pound Green, a fourth-round pick of the Cowboys, is waiting for that college lightning to strike. While at LSU, he averaged 14.3 yards on 69 punt returns. He wasn't as dangerous on kick returns, where he had 59 yards for Dallas on three tries.

Unless Green comes out of his shoes on punts in the preseason, it's going to be tough for him to make the club as the fifth wide receiver, figuring guys like Bennie Brazell and Glenn Holt are ahead of him to dress on Sundays.

But, let's see.

Chatman, who wasn't listed as having a fumble out of his 63 chances in '05, has to be considered the favorite. With Perry expected to return kicks, as well as pick up at least some of the slack for the suspended Chris Henry in the first eight games at the No. 3 receiver, he wouldn't seem to be seriously in the mix.

Then again, don't just shrug off Ratliff. His yards per compared to Chatman for a career? 7.5 to 8.1.

But, obviously, they do need some big plays out of that spot.

Q: Could you please inform me and the rest of the eager fan base what exactly is going on with Odell Thurman, and can we expect him to play for the Cincinnati Bengals this season?
--Jeremy J., Fairborn, OH

JEREMY: It's pretty much the same deal since the last Odell Answer. He's applied to the NFL for reinstatement by July 11 and the next move is the league's.

Those close to him say he has complied with the league's substance abuse program. That's the program that benched him for a year following his DUI arrest last Sept. 25. Apparently those close to him believe he has passed everything he's had to pass and are expecting to hear some kind of word by July 11.

Beyond that, there's not much to do but wait for how the NFL calls it because the league and the team aren't answering questions about him. In large part because terms of a person's treatment and rehab are supposed to be secret.

Will he play for the Bengals again?

Got a coin?

Predicting the next president is an easier call.

Head coach Marvin Lewis, the man who is going to make the ultimate call on if he comes back here, has answered it a couple of different ways so he's not exactly tipping his hand.

Q: What is your comfort level at the corners this year? Mine is a good outlook just with the youth and the practice they'll get with top gun receivers in Chad & TJ. Looking at the recent article, I see our youngster (Mr. Hall) is practicing well and if he can contain one of our top guns, no doubt he can contain others around the league. Your thoughts?
--Phil S., Houston, TX

PHIL: It's a nice feeling, isn't it? They ought to try this stuff more often and take that first-round cornerback.

That said, it's early, it was T.J.'s first work of the spring, and they're still so green that there has to be a certain amount of angst heading into the season with only nine pro starts between Joseph and Hall.

And they're going to be going up against some premium widouts early.

Look at that first month. Baltimore can still cut you with Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason, Seattle comes at you with savvy vets Deion Branch and Nate Burleson, and New England has Randy Moss and Co.

It's clear the Bengals have one of the best emerging 1-2 corner tandems in the league. But it's also one of the toughest positions to learn and it would be real nice if O'Neal is playing near his Pro Bowl form in September and Oct. 1 against proven winning quarterbacks like the Ravens' Steve McNair (Sept. 10), Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck (Sept. 23), and New England's Tom Brady (Oct. 1).

Yes, I like the youngsters but do you realize those three guys (McNair at 89-58, Hasselbeck at 47-33 and The Kid at 70-24) have a combined winning percentage of .641?

That's .641 reasons O'Neal's value can't be tossed away so blandly. They need him, particularly early.

Plus, Arizona (Nov. 18) has Fitzgerald and Boldin, the Rams (Dec. 9) still have Torry Holt, the Bills (Nov. 4) still have Lee Evans, and like I've said, I don't care if Hall can't cover Ted Ginn Jr. Let's just hope he can cover Santonio Holmes (Oct. 28 and Dec. 2).

No question there is a comfort level. But they need to get some more snaps before we sigh.

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