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Hobson's Choice: No. 9 is truly fine

Q: Who has been the most impressive or most improved player at the camps so far?
--Allen, Columbus, OH

ALLEN: Maybe it's just because he didn't work at all last spring, but Carson Palmer looks supersonic. Before Wednesday, one sideline observer had him completing about 80 percent of his passes in team drills during the last six workouts. And that's about 70 throws, kids. You'd have to put cornerback Johnathan Joseph as the most impressive defensive guy.

All signs point to Joseph being fine after surgery on his left foot. (No, it's not the dreaded lisfranc break and he should be ready for training camp. If not, close enough.)

Joseph could always just flat out close on the ball. Now that he's got that year of NFL experience, he's closing even more quickly because he's playing with so much confidence. Before he got hurt, he was all over the place and it makes you think the Bengals are set for a decade at corner with him and Leon Hall. You want to know where the defensive money is headed?

Most improved would probably be middle linebacker Ahmad Brooks and cornerback Keiwan Ratliff. Ratliff, on a one-year deal, is playing like a guy who knows his career is at a crossroads. There have been times his lack of speed shows up, but Chad Johnson beats everybody, and there are those snaps Ratliff looks like he heard the play in the huddle because he's sitting right where the ball ends up.

Brooks is another guy that didn't take a snap all spring. Heck, he wasn't even a Bengal a year ago and arrived at Georgetown just two weeks removed from the supplemental draft.

About the only players you have any kind of idea how they're doing in these camps are the QBs, DBs, wide receivers and, to a certain extent, outside backers. You hate to talk about a middle backer off of sessions he can't hit anyone.

But Brooks is flashing his athleticism. He can sure run. And you don't hear the coaches screaming at him all that much, which has to be a good sign.

But, if you're looking for a Most Impressive, try No. 9. The NFL Network program featuring the Bengals minicamp session from this past Sunday shows how well he has assumed the mantle of leadership. It now seems as natural as his throwing motion, which, by the way, is still seamless.

Yeah, I know he completed just 52 percent of his passes in the last three games and he could have made sure Chad was set on the 75-yard TD bomb to Chris Henry that got called back in Denver.

But he didn't get a hell of a lot help there, or from some dropped passes by guys, and he was absolutely hellacious when the team needed him most, which was on the last drives against the Broncos and Steelers.

Now that he's back chucking it so effortlessly so early, it can only translate into a better completion percentage, and it should help him literally have his legs under him during this December.

Q: How much competition is there among the linebackers? At the beginning of the offseason it was an area of major concern but now I think we have a nice core group of hitters. I'm a big Landon Johnson fan and I'm hoping he gets to be a starter. Jeanty, Hartwell and Brooks all look good but where does that leave Landon? Does he have a shot or is it pretty much in the bag? WHO DEY!
--Sam C., Cincinnati, OH

SAM: There is a lot to like. Landon is a solid player, one of the most productive on the club, and one of the nicest guys in the game. But maybe not starting helps him emphasize the things he does best.

Out of necessity, Johnson has led the Bengals in tackling two of his three seasons. But that's tough to ask from a guy that never weighed much more than 225 pounds.

With the help of a new nutritional program and a grueling offseason in the weight room that began just two weeks after the season ended, Landon has bulked up to 235. But wouldn't it be nice if he could save some wear and tear?

Both Johnson and Caleb Miller look fast and alert in pass coverage and are guys that can really run. If they can concentrate playing on passing downs, that should protect them some.

Both guys have played with a lot of injuries in their three seasons and have taken a lot of shots. If you'll excuse the Yogi-ism, maybe if they play fewer snaps, they'll end up playing more.

Which means the Bengals have got to get a lot on first and second down from Rashad Jeanty on the left side (SAM) and Ed Hartwell at Johnson's spot (WILL). And even Eric Henderson at SAM, who has looked fairly nimble in this camp for a defensive end.

But those are the kind of guys that aren't going to shine in shorts. Hartwell wasn't brought in to cover Fast Willie Parker out of the backfield, but he needs to stone Jamal Lewis and Willis McGahee when the AFC North smashmouth opens its grimy jaws.

The team seems to have a varied combination of guys. Miller and Landon can cover. Jeanty and Henderson are big and athletic. Hartwell is a hitter with experience. But the guy who can make it all work in the middle is Brooks.

Let's see ... they figure to keep seven backers, right? Brooks, Jeanty, Hartwell, Johnson and Miller look to be in. They seem to like Henderson and he could be the seventh backer and ninth D-lineman. They also like special teams ace Andre Frazier, but Florida rookie Earl Everett is going to get a nice long look in the preseason games.

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