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Hobson's Choice: What's behind Irons' curtain?

Q: With most of the talk focusing on the defensive side of the ball, how has Kenny Irons looked so far in practice? Are the coaches pleased? Is he performing as expected, better than expected or not as well as expected?
--Brian M., Alexandria, VA

BRIAN: Only six of Irons' practices with the team have been open to media scrutiny, and five were limited with the other rookies. But every time he has flashed what they need at backup running back: quickness and speed with a make-you-miss swivel and decent hands.

Still, it's so difficult for the coaches to evaluate their players during this period when they're not wearing pads. Sure, they like Irons' quickness and how he hits and spins in the hole.

But how quick will he be after he carries the ball eight to 10 times in a game? And, yes, he's got good hands, but how good will they be when he has to stretch for a pass in the flat with a 245-pound backer at his belt?

At this point, you'd have to say he's what they expected, and maybe a little better. But it's just so early to say much.

Q: I love the pick of Kenny Irons, if Deltha O'Neal plays better than last year. Last year the offense had too many three and outs, and they seemed to come in bunches. This wears out a defense. Chris Perry is great when healthy, but he has proven to be unreliable. An Irons-type back should help move the chains and keep the defense off of the field, plus his speed puts a lot of pressure on a defense. Do any of the backups and new signees at DB appear to have anything of value? Are they counting on Hall to step in right away or are they counting on O'Neal?
--Mike, West Chester, OH

MIKE: You've just asked the No. 1 question of minicamp. In a perfect world, they take the entire year and ease Hall into the lineup. But last year proved the only things perfect are Tom Browning and cart golf.

They must be counting on O'Neal more than he's counting on them because they didn't try very hard to trade him during the draft and they consider him the starter in front of Hall, but he hasn't showed up for any of the voluntary camps.

It has been floated publicly that O'Neal hasn't been happy for more than a year because the Bengals didn't redo his deal after his Pro Bowl season of 2005, but until he says it himself I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

If that's one of the reasons O'Neal played so poorly last year, along with his injuries, then the Bengals certainly didn't see that coming. They drafted South Carolina cornerback Johnathan Joseph in the first round in '06 to replace free agent Tory James after last season, not to bench O'Neal late in the season.

Certainly Hall was selected to replace O'Neal, but in '08 and not now. If O'Neal wants to get paid, or wants the Bengals to deal him, he's certainly going to have to give people a better resume than the one he's got now, and both O'Neal and the Bengals should reap the benefits.

The way O'Neal put his career back together in '04 after it was left for dead on the bottom of the Broncos' list of wide receivers was really fun to watch. His problem is if he pulls the malcontent thing again after getting out of Denver, who is going to sign up for the third term?

He has to play and, frankly, with Joseph lined up on the other side they need O'Neal to play because heading into the opener with two cornerbacks and a total of seven NFL starts is a recipe for disaster.

The two rookie safeties drafted behind Hall look like they're going to be valuable people on special teams and will provide some much needed physical play. Competition is supposed to make men of us all, so second-year safeties John Busing and Herana Daze-Jones have hellacious training camp battles in front of them.

Q: What is the status of Adam Kieft regarding his knee injury which occurred a few years ago? Will he be able to get on the field for the camps and practices? We all hope so. It should be an exciting year.
--Chris V.O., Walker, MI

CHRIS: Kieft's knee, which took an ACL injury in his first week of training camp as a rookie in August of 2005, looks to finally be OK. But he's had another setback with a foot problem and it looks like he's not going to be ready until later in training camp because he wasn't on the field during the first voluntary workout on May 15.

It's really a shame because he was one of the pleasant surprises of the spring camps after they picked him in the fifth round, and he kept on playing so well and impressing them so much with his huge athleticism (6-7, 6-8ish, 340) that they put him at left tackle and he kept impressing.

But you won't find a harder working, more pleasant guy than Kieft. He just gives you that sense he'll make it back.

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