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Holding Fourth

Cedric Benson

Posted: 8:25 a.m.

A few post-Fourth of July observations. With the smoke cleared and Rozzi's headed into its All-Star break getting their fireworks ready for Riverfest, there are just 24 days until the first practice of training camp.

BEST TRAINING CAMP BATTLE: Running back. Which two guys are going to back up Cedric Benson? The position has an NFL melting pot of candidates straight out of central casting that only Hard Knocks could love.

The savvy, dependable yet aging veteran (Kenny Watson). The blazing rookie saddled with a troubled past and small school resume (Bernard Scott). The third-year guy picked up in a spring trade with plenty of experience as a No. 2 (Brian Leonard). The fourth-year veteran who has flashed whenever he's been on the field but almost never has because of injury (DeDe Dorsey). Last year's college free agent coming off a December and spring in which he has only opened eyes (James Johnson). This year's college free agent faced with seemingly only a shot for the practice squad (Marlon Lucky).

But then, that may not be a bad deal for Lucky because Johnson used the practice squad to put himself in nice position for camp. After workouts were completed last month, there were some second thoughts rattling around that maybe he should have been activated earlier last season. Johnson has shown he can catch, is a willing blocker, and has a knack for finding some room.

But there is a long way to go. Given that Leonard is a second-round pick from '07 and has the most experience next to Watson, he has to be a favorite. Like Watson, he's viewed as a reliable, versatile guy that can catch, block and really help on third down. Watson's edge is his special teams experience. Leonard hasn't done much on teams, but his edge is his youth at six years younger than Watson.

Scott has been terrific on the field and quiet off it in showing tremendous burst on the perimeter and a penchant for getting through inside holes quickly. But his hands and blocking are raw. Problem is, if the Bengals cut him after he gets a lot of work in the preseason games they probably won't have a chance to develop him on the practice squad because someone figures to claim him off waivers.

That's what happened in 2006 when the Bengals signed Dorsey as a free agent out of a small school. He put up huge numbers in the preseason, but they weren't enamored with his command of the finer points without the ball. They released him on Cutdown Day and he ended up getting a Super Bowl ring with the Colts. The Bengals picked up Dorsey off waivers the next year, but he hasn't been able to put together a full healthy year since. With his ability to return kicks, he's an interesting guy to watch.

As for fullback, the prevailing opinion seems to be if Jeremi Johnson isn't ready physically for the first day of camp, he'll be cut.

SHAYNE FEST: Bengals kicker Shayne Graham has made his name for giving back to the community and he'll do it twice before training camp gets going with two events for his foundation.

The big question, of course, is if he and the team are going to give to each other in a long-term accord before a week from Wednesday. Since Graham is the franchise player, the two sides will only be able to agree on a one-year deal between July 16 and the end of the season. And with 2010 looking to have no salary cap, you would have to ask why a top player at his position would do a one-year deal now.

Security would have to be the answer on both sides.

Both sides have to be looking at two of the more recent deals signed by top kickers. The Titans' Rob Bironas agreed to a reported four-year, $12 million contract back in January and the Texans' Kris Brown just extended for a reported $10 million over four years.

Graham (85.6 percent) and Bironas (84.5 percent) are about even in field-goal percentage but Bironas has a big edge in touchbacks. Last season it was 22-9. Brown had eight touchbacks in '08, but Graham has the edge in career percentage at 78.6.

BIG DEALS:The speculation is that the agent for No. 1 pick Andre Smith is going to start his negotiations just below Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez's deal at No. 5 for $28.5 million guaranteed and that the Bengals are going to start at the $21 million guaranteed the Jets gave linebacker Vernon Gholston at No. 6 last year.

But a lot of times these deals aren't even about the money. It's what the player has to do in order to trigger the guarantee. As in, how much does he have to play?

In the past the Bengals and other teams have agreed to fairly easy triggers, such as 35 to 45 percent play time. For instance, Keith Rivers didn't hit that last year because of his broken jaw but he's expected to reach it this year.

But with an unsigned CBA beyond 2010 and the economy of the league and country still up in the air, will teams want to protect themselves even more by making sure they get production for their millions? With Gholston on the verge of being declared a bust, are the Jets just sick over that $21 million?

It may well turn out the most intriguing part of the deals in the top 10 aren't the money, but what they have to do to get the money. With the holiday completed, look for there to be some contact between the Bengals and agent Alvin Keels in the next week or so.

AIR MCNAIR:Tom Curran of NBC Sports made an outstanding point over the weekend that way back in 1995 the late Steve McNair became the first black quarterback drafted by a team in order to build around him.

Taking it a step further, it brought the events of 1947 full circle some 48 years later. When Jackie Robinson broke the pro sports' color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he did it as much with his toughness and leadership as he did with his legs and glove. And it was toughness and leadership that the whites always whispered blacks never had until Robinson shattered the myth with his daily brew of power and poise.

If there had been any more whispers in the NFL, if Doug Williams hadn't silenced them forever with one brilliant Super Sunday, then McNair did it with 13 quiet, workmanlike seasons in which he became the most underrated quarterback of all time. If he talked like Terrell Owens, threw like Peyton Manning, and played in a big market, he would have been Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or Tom Brady.

He was a true leader with Hall of Fame toughness. Yes, he's a borderline candidate. But you don't need a Hall of Fame if you have a legacy.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis had some great duels with McNair as defensive coordinator of the Ravens at the turn of the century when Baltimore and Tennessee were the best teams in the AFC before the emergence of Brady's Patriots.

But Lewis remembers when he was still the linebackers coach of the Steelers and McNair was a rookie.

"Three successive third downs. Three conversions. The final one was a 40-yard-plus run for a touchdown," Lewis recalled. "Always very competitive. Hard to sack and get him on the ground. "You always had to be prepared to adjust your plan."

HALL NEXT?: Graham isn't the only veteran the Bengals could be looking to extend. Recent history and the calendar say they could approach a guy like cornerback like Leon Hall.

Since Lewis became head coach, the Bengals have made an effort to keep their own and Year 3 is the year they've usually made a move.

They locked up Chad Ochocinco halfway through his third and breakout season in 2003. They gave Carson Palmer the biggest deal in NFL history at the end of his third season and first Pro Bowl year in 2005. They signed Robert Geathers after his third season and career year (10.5) sacks. Just last year they agreed to long-term deals with two starters heading into their third seasons in defensive tackle Domata Peko and left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

Hall has to be considered as he heads into his third season. He had a rough first half of his rookie year, but he has become what the Bengals thought he would be: Smart, physical, reliable. No question Joe Flacco and Mark Clayton fried him back in November with some long plays of the one-handed variety, but those were exceptions rather the rule.

Another possibility is Hall's mate on the other corner, Johnathan Joseph. Joseph heads into his fourth season of a five-year deal, but has struggled with inconsistency fueled largely by his foot problems. He seems to be healthy, finally, and if he plays like he did as a rookie he's also a candidate to be re-upped.

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