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Hobson's Choice: Backer to the future

Q: Is there another team taking the top player in the draft at his position and moving him? Players move, but the best at a position? From the draft the best cornerback, best center, best tight end, outside linebacker, QB, name any position - they're all playing their college spots except one: best inside linebacker. We take one of the best players in the nation and move him! That'll show Pete Carroll how smart we are. Forget versatility. That's not for rookies; it's for players who know their primary position. And as far as getting the "best players on the field," how does it make sense if they're not in their best positions? --Dane D., Wilson, N.C.

DANE: There's no doubt that Rey Maualuga is going to eventually line up at middle linebacker, his college position and where he dominated games. A month? Two months? A year? If it's like Carson Palmer six years ago, it won't be more than a year.

And, it really is like the Palmer situation because the Bengals consider middle linebacker the quarterback of the defense. So like Palmer sat behind Jon Kitna for a year, Maualuga is going to learn behind Dhani Jones. But since this is defense, he can do it by playing next to him.

The way the coaches see it, they don't want to rush a rookie into the role of directing traffic in the middle of the defense. They did it with Odell Thurman in '05, but he had veteran Brian Simmons next to him. Jones' strongest position is the WILL, but that is already held down by Keith Rivers.

Maualuga has enough to learn with a new defense and a new speed of the game, they figure. And a huge problem with this club has been the fact that in Marvin Lewis' six Opening Days they've had six different starting middle linebackers.

Now, they believe, they've got a chance for some continuity and some pop/intimidation/attitude at the same time. When you're talking about getting the best players on the field, what good does it do if they're not fully versed in the playbook? The way they see it, they get the best of both worlds with Jones' brain and Maualuga's brawn.

When it comes to changing the position of No. 1 picks, it happens. Particularly on defense when college ends make the switch to NFL linebackers. Remember Vernon Gholston in '08? And many NFL teams this year had Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins, the No. 1 corner, projected as a safety on their boards. After taking him with the 14th pick, the Saints decided to keep Jenkins at corner but are ready to move him if events dictate.

Gholston didn't work out too well, but another '08 No. 1 pick that played a position he wasn't known for in college turned out all right. New England's Jerod Mayo was a 4-3 WILL linebacker at Tennessee, where he also played a little in the middle. The Pats promptly put him in a new defense (the 3-4) and a new position (weakside inside linebacker), where he had to prove he could do something he didn't do in college and that was take on the guards in the downhill game.

They must have coached him up OK. When Rivers broke his jaw seven games into the season that cleared the way for Mayo to be NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

By the way, the six Opening Day middle backers: Kevin Hardy, Nate Webster, Odell Thurman, Brian Simmons, Ahmad Brooks and Jones.

You may feel that way about versatility, but the coaches are at the opposite end of the spectrum on that subject.

Q: I just read how great of shape Benson is in. Obviously he is the Bengals starting RB. How are the rest of the RBs looking? Is Leonard in the mix? --Mike A, Hicksville, OH.

MIKE: Brian Leonard, the man they got from St. Louis in the Orien Harris trade, is very much in the mix for the No. 2 job and as the No. 1 third-down back. It's going to be hard moving Kenny Watson out of that spot, but the way they hardly used Watson last year makes you think they are thinking about going a different way. Watson, who turned 31 in March, was available for duty while Chris Perry had his fumbling problems and lost his job to a guy that had just showed up two weeks before in Cedric Benson. But Watson finished the season with just 13 carries.

Still, Watson is so reliable and versatile. But that's the way the 25-year-old Leonard is advertised. He can block, he can catch, and he can also play some fullback in a pinch. Tough guy to move out, particularly if they do what they do in the past and keep just three backs on the 53-man final roster.

You would think sixth-rounder Bernard Scott is going to get a long look. He's got burst and speed and could be a possible return man on punt and kickoffs. If he flashes in either or both, he's a lock. But DeDe Dorsey, he of the eight yards per carry on 21 carries in '07, can also return kicks. If Dorsey can stay healthy through a preseason, he may make it because injuries have prevented him from making a longer impact. His '07 season ended prematurely with an ankle problem and last year a pulled hamstring limited him to just five carries in four games.

James Johnson, a free agent out of Kansas State, played well down the stretch coming off the practice squad, but it would look like he, Watson, and Dorsey, are battling Scott for the third spot behind Benson and Leonard. In '07, Dorsey also contributed on special teams with their first blocked punt for a touchdown in 18 years.

Q: Can you speculate the plan if Andre Smith goes into a prolonged holdout? Does Collins plug into RT or do they shuffle? Almost seems like they'd have to move Whit to RT and plug Collins into LT. This would really bring some heat on Marvin. For the record, I didn't want Smith but 100 percent agree with the quick decision to make him a RT. This is where he fits in the NFL. It still remains to be seen if he is ready to be a professional. I'm betting he gets lazy once he cashes his signing bonus. I think there is at least a 50 percent chance he will be a bust. --Jim S., Louisville, KY

JIM: Strong words about a guy that was motivated enough to dominate his position in college. Granted, his fiascos coming out of college indicate 0.0 professionalism. But then again, I remember doing some ridiculous stuff at age 22 that enraged my bosses so I'm not going judge any one on that score.

But I would advise the Bengals to do what his head coach and offensive line coach did at Alabama: Get all over him and stay on him. Alabama head coach Nick Saban spoke so highly of him because Smith did what Saban demanded and Saban didn't play patty cake with him. Some guys need the tough love and the maintenance. I've spent some time with Smith (not enough to make any flowing pronouncements) and found him to be an earnest, pleasant guy who knows what's going on, so I don't think he's a lost cause and I think his rebound to the No. 6 pick show he's not lazy.

(And, let's face it, if the Bengals didn't pick him at No. 6, somebody would have in the top 10, or pretty close.)

They aren't moving Andrew Whitworth out of left tackle. That's why they made the move when they did. They need that side stable and, plus, he's lefty all the way. If Smith holds out for an extended time, Anthony Collins would have to be the answer at right tackle. But a guy who has been forgotten in all of this, Scott Kooistra, can also play right tackle. Guard is probably Kooistra's best position, but he's smart and seasoned with seven years experience. Between him and Collins (a right tackle in college for a time), that is probably as good any solution currently out there on the market.

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