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Hobson's Choice: Rookie roll call

Where is Andre Smith in his development? Rey we know will be good. How do the coaches feel Michael Johnson will fit next year? Will Chase Coffman be able to play and how does he fit if at all, or is he a wasted pick like Simpson? How do the coaches feel about Luigs; will he play guard? Did they like what Morgan Trent gave them? How do they feel about Vakapuna, McDonald, and can Freddie Brown be a big receiver for them? We don't hear much about those quys and would like some info.
--Brendon M., Jackson, KY*

BRENDON:**Smith is behind because he missed all of training camp and the first half of the season with the broken foot, but he showed enough flashes late in the year during some big games to make them think they've got a guy that can be a dominant blocker in both the pass and the run. The key is making sure he doesn't balloon to something ridiculous during the offseason and he shows up at something like 370 or 380 pounds. But if he keeps it under control and stays healthy, what he showed in glimpses at the end of last year would indicate he's worthy of the sixth pick.

Maualuga obviously has some off-field issues to clear up from last week's DUI arrest, but his Twitter apology from Monday morning shows he's got more than a clue and that he should be able to overcome it. As we all know, he's the middle backer of the future.

There are people that no doubt want to make the comparison to former middle linebacker Odell Thurman, whose offseason problems following his own big rookie year have kept him out of the NFL since. But Maualuga has developed such a bond with the fans that you sense he knows he's got a lot of people counting on him.

Right end Michael Johnson is coming off a promising season and they're excited to see what he'll do after a full offseason in the weight room. Now that he's got a full year in the system, look for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to use him more in different positions, such as a tackle and outside backer. He had some nice plays in those spots and that 6-7 wingspan has already come up big. His tipped pass that resulted in lineman Jon Fanene's touchdown interception return turned the Detroit game, and he had at least one big deflection against Kansas City. They love him.

As we wrote about Coffman last month, who knows if he's another Simpson or another Dan Ross or somebody in between? They knew he was a project when they drafted him and he is even more so as he comes back from a late-season scope on his injured foot/ankle. What they do know is that he's such a big question mark they need to draft a tight end high again.

Jonathan Luigs looks to be more of a center than anything. He's worked at both guard and center, but don't look for him to be a starting guard. Right now, it looks like they're trying to get him competent enough to back up guard in a pinch.

There were some people around the club who were surprised when they didn't sign sixth-rounder Clinton McDonald off the practice squad when defensive tackle Domata Peko went down with a knee injury late in the season and they opted for veteran free-agent Shaun Smith. That was a clear concern for the 6-2, 290-pound McDonald's lack of girth against the run, but they like the guy's work ethic and potential as a pass rusher. Great kid, but he's got an uphill battle since tackle is one of the deepest spots on the team, especially if they re-sign Tank Johnson.

Rookie nickel cornerback Morgan Trent impressed with his size and smarts and while had some up-and-down games down the stretch (Hello, Oakland), look for him to come in as the solid No. 3 corner.

Fullback Fui Vakapuna's fate is no doubt tied to Jeremi Johnson's situation; given that Vakapuna wasn't active for the final 10 games he rejoined the team after the Bengals released him on cutdown day. Johnson struggled a bit at the end of the season in both games against the Jets and the Bengals have to decide if they want to re-sign him at age 30 or go younger with Vakapuna. Vakapuna is a good athlete, but he's not the physical presence in the running game that Johnson is. Yet they obviously have regard for him and think he can be contributor with more work, so he'll obviously be in the mix whether they sign Johnson or not.

Wide receiver, Freddie Brown, a seventh-rounder, doesn't fit what they need right now. He's a good route runner, but he's not a burner and they need guys that can stretch the field. He's also a good work ethic guy that has an uphill climb now that Quan Cosby has appeared to solidify his role as the fourth receiver, punt returner and backup kick returner.**

Q: What do we need to be a better pass rushing team? Robert Geathers has not been the same since 2006 and I have no idea why. Antwan Odom does OK when he's healthy but he never is. Do we need more 3-4 confusing lineups in our defense?
--*Keneth D., Atlanta, GA

KENETH: Good call on Geathers. Good guy and an extremely tough one who plays hurt, which he did late this past season. But since he had 10.5 sacks in 2006, he has just 9.5 and seems to be a better run player than anything else. Yet, if Odom didn't get hurt in the sixth game this season you would have seen Geathers' numbers climb because offenses were starting to slide their protection to him.

It's pretty clear. Before Odom got hurt, the Bengals were in the top five for sacks in the NFL. And you can say, well, that was all off that one game against the brutal Packers offensive line. But they have the formula to be a better pass rush team: Good against the run, two solid cover cornerbacks, and a penetrating trio of competent nickel tackles in Tank Johnson, Jon Fanene and Frostee Rucker. Remember, a lot of that pressure in September and October came from inside, which is where Odom also did a lot of his damage.

And figure that starting defensive tackle Domata Peko missing the last five games hurt them because he is so good against the run, so they didn't have as many passing situations. 

Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer already uses a lot of 3-4 Parecellian/Belichickian principles on third down (note the liberal use of WILL linebacker Brandon Johnson in several different roles), but the big thing that was missing to sack the passer in November and December was the lead. They had so much trouble scoring points they just couldn't go after the quarterback like they were earlier in the season. Jay Cutler and Joe Flacco think Zimmer is a riverboat gambler. With 17-point leads, you can roll the dice all day long with blitzes and pressure.

Yeah, like every other team in the NFL, they could use another defensive end who can rush the passer. But the building blocks are in place, particularly if promising rookie end Michael Johnson continues to develop. They've got the play-caller and they've got some versatile linemen. Some leads, a little health, and maybe a young pair of legs might help.

Q: After watching DeSean Jackson break another one in the Pro Bowl, will we change philosophies and get a speed receiver? And will Jerome have a chance this year to hopefully prove us wrong?
--*Jeff H., Batesville, IN

JEFF: You certainly have to hope they've changed their thinking on sub 6-foot receivers when they saw what happened to them in the 2008 draft. They love speed receivers, but they also love big receivers and that can limit you.

Look, no one is denying you need tall receivers in this day and age. Yeah, the best ones are going 6-4, 6-3, 230 pounds nowadays. But those guys that are that size and can run are like bipartanship, $2 dollar bills, and unicorns.

You can't find them.

You can't let the Peter Warrick disaster dictate what you do. The reason Warrick flopped at receiver is not because he was 5-10ish, but because he couldn't run and his tear-away jersey moves from college didn't translate. But speed is the great equalizer and hopefully that is the lesson of Jackson and, to a lesser extent, Eddie Royal. Yeah, size is great. But if you wait for it, you have to get a guy in the first round or not at all. And it forced them into taking Jerome Simpson. Yeah, he's big and fast, but he's so raw he hasn't been able to help them. Jackson and Royal were proven major college players.

And, really, it's not fair to Simpson to say he's a mistake because he's played only a handful of NFL games. But what it does say after a season he was active for only one game in a season they desperately needed big and fast at receiver is that this offensive staff has serious doubts about him.

And that's the bottom line. If these guys aren't going to put him in a game after two years, why keep him around even if there are those that think he has the physical tools? He's a guy that tries really hard and has great determination. And maybe he is good enough to make it. But after two training camps and 32 weeks of practice, he hasn't convinced this set of coaches.

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