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Hobson's Choice: Beat the clock?

Q: I feel that the GM is wasting one of the top QBs in the league who is in his prime by not getting a solid defensive team out there. Do you agree? Carson is in his prime and they are letting a special talent go to waste by not helping him out on the other side of the ball. They put up 45 points and still lose? No Excuse. Give this team a boost in the Defense Department. This has been going on longer than just this year. What are your thoughts?
--Fred, Appleton, WI

FRED: Carson's biological clock is ticking, but the scary thing is that players supposed to be the heart of this defense have never really got out of the womb. If there is one thing they have to do at the end of the season it is sit down and figure out why the defensive drafts from '04-06 have yielded so little.

By GM I guess you mean Bengals president Mike Brown although he no longer has the title. The club made a clear decision a few years ago after Marvin's first free-agent class was spearheaded by three defensive players from each position group that got about a combined $10 million to sign in a defensive lineman (John Thornton), a linebacker (Kevin Hardy) and a cornerback (Tory James).

Brown and the football people's decision was sound. They would drop more than $100 million on re-upping their offensive core, then draft and develop the rest of the defense starting in 2004, when four of the five first-day picks were defensive. In '05 and '06, two of the three first-day picks were defensive in each of those drafts and a supplemental third round pick in '06 (Ahmad Brooks) was defensive. Somewhere, I'm sure, they thought a couple of playmakers would emerge.

But none of those nine defensive players drafted on the first day from '04 to '06 look like Pro Bowlers yet.

And, no question, injury and bad luck have something to do with it. Losing a first-round pick like David Pollack with what looks to be a career-ending neck injury is devastating, and losing the Pro Bowler in the group, Odell Thurman, to a pair of one-year suspensions is curious, unprecedented, and never been explained by the NFL.

But the Bengals knew Thurman was a gamble when they drafted him, cornerback Keiwan Ratliff was deemed too slow and is gone, free safety Madeiu Williams hasn't recaptured his rookie form and was Caleb Miller ever big enough to play linebacker?

Brooks and Frostee Rucker, well, they haven't been able to stay on the field long enough to know what you and they've got.

So is it personnel decisions, how the players are being used, or just plain bad luck that has kept this defense from catching up to the offense?

Who really knows? Probably all three are factors.

But I do know this. Palmer isn't getting any younger and except for Robert Geathers now hampered by learning a new position, there is no defensive playmaker in sight.

Even if they decide that it was just injuries that doomed those drafts, aren't they now forced to jump out of their model and get that one stud in free agency that can make a difference over there?

OK, OK, maybe if Brooks and Thurman can get on the field together ... but you've got to get some proven production over there instead of wistful potential as the clock ticks.

As a postscript, you have to hold off on the '07 draft because they just got here, and when it comes to the criticism of this year's No. 1 pick and last year's No. 1 pick, cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph, respectively, the brakes must go on. NFL corners need more time than most to learn simply because of the demands of the position.

Look at veteran corner Dre Bly Monday night in Denver. His double-digit signing bonus was no match for someone named Greg Jennings in overtime on Brett Favre's 82-yard stunner.

The rants about Hall playing Hines Ward one-on-one could be heard all the way back to 1987, when a rookie cornerback named Eric Thomas got scathed by Jerry Rice in one-on-one coverage on a 25-yard heave on the last play of the game.

Thomas made the Pro Bowl the next year.

Q: With what seems to me as depleted talent on our defense, what is the Bengals salary cap number for this year? It seems to me that they always have room to pick up people like LeMar Marshall, Anthony Schlegel, Corey Mays and Dhani Jones. I know the Bengals signed these guys for a bargain, but combining all of these contracts that were signed after the start of training camp it seems like we had enough money to sign a reasonably big named free agent during the offseason. Do not forget we also signed Aaron Elling to kick in the preseason alone. That does not seem like money well spent to me. Thoughts?
--Greg G., Cincinnati, OH

GREG: The money spent on injuries and free agents are two separate issues. With about $1 million left under the '07 salary cap, the Bengals are far over the current league average of $6 million under the cap and that means the injuries, along with incentives, are going to put them over.

Traditionally, the Bengals have kept a $3 million pad for injuries and incentives. If they hadn't kept that pad, they wouldn't have been able to field a full roster of 53 this season with the spate of injuries.

The signings of Jones, Marshall and all the rest were out of that pad, and you can bet that they never dreamed they would be signing so many veterans like that so late.

And Elling is one of the reasons they're in this bizarre fix. They acquired him only to kick in the preseason finale because Shayne Graham was hurt and had no intention of keeping Elling so that they would have to pay his salary.

But when Elling got hurt for the season on his first play as a Bengal with an ACL and they had to waive him injured, they absorbed about $200,000 alone on him. A backup kicker getting an ACL? You knew it was going to be a tough year.

They also keep a pad in order to extend the contracts of potential free agents late in the season so they can put some of the money into this year's cap and not put that much of a hit into '08 and '09.

But it's doubtful they can do that now. The incentive of first-round pick Leon Hall is going to kick in on top of the injuries, putting them over the cap and cutting about $2 million into the '08 cap.

So the injury pad is built into the planning. The argument is not giving money to Jones and Marshall. That money was already earmarked for injuries/incentives/extensions whether they signed a major free agent or not.

The debate comes before in deciding to franchise defensive end Justin Smith and not pursuing any major free agents on the defensive side of the ball.

You can make an argument that they should have. But that has nothing to do with the injuries and what has transpired since August. The one thing you can conclude is they've virtually exhausted that $109 million for this year.

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