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Hobson's Choice: Can't sit these kids

Should they keep four RBs? The guy they drafted looks on the small side. Do you think Chad is trying to show he's not a chemistry killer in order to help himself when he eventually gets to free agency? You know he still wants out.
--*Andy, Cincinnati

ANDY: It was a heck of a lot easier for Timmons (their No. 1 pick in 2007) to sit in Pittsburgh than it is for Maualuga and Johnson to sit here now. Timmons sat for a defense that led the NFL in defense his rookie year and was just a year removed from winning the Super Bowl.

The Bengals defense, although vastly improved, hasn't had a playmaker since David Fulcher and these are two kids that actually look like they are difference-makers. They haven't had a big linebacker that Dave Lapham says "rattles skeletons" like Maualuga since Jim LeClair three decades ago and they've never had a guy like Michael Johnson. Granted, he may end up being more Ben Johnson instead of Magic Johnson, or somewhere in between but they've never had a guy like that with his size and athleticism and not to use him would be a farce.

But I don't think they're talking about force feeding them.

Dhani Jones is going to stay in the middle for stability and it's not a given that Maualuga is going to start ahead of Rashad Jeanty at SAM. There would have been some teams that said Maualuga is clearly a better and younger middle backer so, "Bang, put him in the middle and let's go,' but the Bengals are choosing to ease him in there plus taking away the pressure of what the middle backer has to do mentally before the snap.

And Johnson isn't going to start out as an every-down player. They had him working at three different positions and the plan looks to line him up on third down in a variety of spots to take advantage of his uniqueness to block. Starting out giving him 10 to 15 snaps a game sounds pretty reasonable for a top of the third-round pick.

Timmons didn't have one of the Steelers' 36 sacks in '07. The problem is, the Bengals have had 34 sacks the last two seasons. No, they don't have the luxury of sitting Johnson.

I understand what you're asking. When are the Bengals going to be able to be deep enough and good enough to let rookies develop instead of feeding them to the wolves?

It's a legit question, and it could have been asked in '05 when they rammed David Pollack into the SAM backer spot in October despite a holdout and position switch from college. But last year, No. 1 pick Keith Rivers was clearly one of their three best linebackers, so why sit him? And I think you have to put these guys in the same category. Their skills have been so rare around here that in no way is it going to hurt the defense in the limited roles they are projected to play as rookies. It would be damn near illegal to sit them the whole year.

As for the running backs, I can't see them keeping four and going light somewhere else on offense. They've got to keep at least nine offensive linemen. The additions of Ben Utecht and Chase Coffman the past two offseasons show more of a commitment to tight ends, so they have to keep three of those, and they need six wide receivers. So they'll most likely continue to keep three backs to go with the one fullback.

Bernard Scot, the sixth-rounder from Abilene Christian, isn't that small. He's 5-10, 200 pounds, the same specs as Tiki Barber. And last year's Rookie of the Year, Titans running back Chris Johnson, is 5-11, 200 and carried it 251 times. Scott is certainly big enough to start his career as at least a complementary speed back. And, yes, it is Division II and junior college, but from what we can gather he has carried the ball more than 700 times the past three years and hasn't been hurt.

They do need a bell cow behind No. 1 Cedric Benson with the leading candidate 225-pounder Brian Leonard because of his track record. They've left the impression they don't think Kenny Watson is a bell cow because they've never used him that way over an extended period despite some big games. DeDe Dorsey and James Johnson are other 200-pounders.

I think Scott has to make it, or they lose him on waivers. Plus, they've been craving for that fast change-of-pace guy ever since Chris Perry flashed what could be done with it in '05. So it comes down to who backs up Benson.

I don't know why Chad is doing what he's doing now. All I know is that he's playing ball with everybody. If he still wants to get out, this is the way to do it. Boomer Esiason went behind closed doors in 1992 and Takeo Spikes took his case to Marvin Lewis more than he did the media in 2003. If Chad didn't take his campaign so public in '08, who knows? The one way not to get traded from the Bengals is to jack Mike Brown up against a wall.

But from what everybody can see, Chad is sincere about playing here and doing well and he looked good enough that they're not going to trade him. And he's not eligible to be a free agent until after the 2010 season so I think what is driving him is how bad of a year he had last year. To me it seems as if he has realized all the hard work he has done during his career threatens to be flushed down the rat hole with a couple of bad years and in no way does he want that to happen.

It seems that after being told how much progress they made this offseason and the players seeming like they really got with it that it would be a shame to do something saying "We're the same ol' Bengals, waiting until the last minute to somehow find a way to screw up the progress and the mindset of the team." Do you think the front office will turn over a new leaf as well?*
--Michael, Groveport, OH

MICHAEL: Which new leaf and what is the norm?

Since Lewis arrived here seven drafts ago, one player was signed before the NFL Draft (Carson Palmer) and three missed so little time that they were able to start Opening Day in cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall and linebacker Keith Rivers.  In the three years before that, No. 1s Peter Warrick and Levi Jones were in on time and so were their two overall No. 1 picks in the '90s, Dan Wilkinson and Ki-Jana Carter.

So I don't think you can say the Bengals have put "trying to screw it up" on a spreadsheet.

But there is no question they've had their share of holdouts. If agents have a penchant for holding guys out, then the Bengals haven't backed down.

Justin Smith had Jim Steiner for his 40-plus day holdout while Chris Perry had Eugene Parker and David Pollack had Tom Condon's group in their three-week stalemates. Steiner represented the Vikings' Bryant McKinnie a year after he had Smith and that was a 98-day holdout. A year after he had Perry, Parker held out the Bears' No. 1 pick, Cedric Benson, for 30-plus days. Last year Condon's group, CAA, represented the Jags' Derrick Harvey in a 43-day holdout.

I'm not saying the agents didn't have legit gripes and reasons. But with certian guys the Bengals aren't alone and, to be fair, they've also shown they can do timely deals.

Yet there is no question that a holdout with the No. 1 this year in right tackle Andre Smith makes no sense on either side. Smith is tabbed as the Opening Day starter and he needs all the reps he can get.

The belief is that Alvin Keels represents Smith and he's had some veteran tussles in his past, such as Chiefs running back Larry Johnson a few years ago holding out of training camp for three weeks and running back Leon Washington boycotting the Jets' voluntary workouts this spring.

But that doesn't mean Keels and the Bengals won't be able to do a deal. Keels has shown no signs of asking for a Mark Sanchez-like deal. Smith went the pick after Sanchez at No. 6, and Sanchez got a $28.5 million guarantee in a deal that has been reported as more than 50 percent over the No. 5 slot of '08. If Keels comes at them with something similar, they're going to argue that it is a quarterback's deal and those are inherently different and more expensive.

The Bengals have a lot riding on Smith and they need him in on time. But at what cost to the rest of their salary structure for a guy that has yet to take an NFL snap?

Q: Is there any chance, now or in the future, that the Bengals go 3-4 so they can get both Maualuga and Dhani Jones in the middle at the same time? Having two really good middle linebackers would be awesome. --*Paul R., Oldenburg, IN

PAUL: They will be on the field at the same time in the 4-3 with Jones in the middle and Maualuga playing the SAM. The guys that make them able to play the 3-4 in certain passing situations are guys like rookie defensive end Michael Johnson and ends Jon Fanene and Frostee Rucker. Johnson can drop and rush as a linebacker while Fanene and Rucker are big enough to book-end a 3-4 line.

But they are still a base 4-3 that has some 3-4 packages. An even better 3-4 fit could be WILL linebacker Keith Rivers moving next to Maualuga with Johnson at one OLB and Robert Geathers/Antwan Odom at the other OLB. But, you're right, their personnel says they can use the 3-4 a little more but it won't be their main staple.

Q: As angry as I was last season (for not signing a competent quarterback to back up Carson, for predictable play selection, for hanging onto players that even we fans knew were never going to be productive) and frustrated (over the yearly disproportionate number of injuries), I am even more hopeful and excited about this team's prospects. I am excited because this team more than any in a long time seems to have the capacity to absorb a reasonable number of injuries and still put a competitive product on the field. As you look at things, what position group do you feel most able to absorb some player losses and what position group is least able? * --Larry R., Hamilton Township, OH**

LARRY: Thanks for the kind words in the other parts of your note and the answers are probably predictable.

Their most vulnerable positions are the offensive line and cornerback, especially the line. Three of the spots are basically unknown already at center, right tackle, and left guard, and any injuries there to test the depth when the starters are already inexperienced could be devastating. The Travis Fisher tryout on Saturday showed they're uncertain about what they've got behind Joseph and Hall, particularly at nickel cornerback. The fact they didn't sign Fisher shows that there aren't a lot of answers out there right now.

There isn't a lot of experienced depth behind fullback Jeremi Johnson. Only J.D. Runnels, who has played in two, has appeared in an NFL game. Johnson left the field before the end of the minicamp practices, ostensibly to work on his conditioning, and the word is if he's not ready to step on the field in Georgetown on day one he may not be on the roster.

But they have good depth at linebacker, safety, wide receiver, and running back, which ought to bode well for their special teams. I agree, they certainly seem faster and deeper than the past couple of years.

I'll say this in defense of Ryan Fitzpatrick, last year's backup quarterback that went 4-7-1 in place of Carson Palmer. A lot of things were wrong on offense last year, enough that they were 0-4 with Palmer. On the first day of free agency, the Bills didn't blink in giving Fitzpatrick more than double his $940,000 salary and their No. 1 spot is a lot more tenuous than the one here.

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