Hot corner

2-22-04, 10:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

INDIANAPOLIS _Matt Millen thinks the NFL has a problem.

He has spent the week here at the scouting combine reaching up to shake hands with wide receivers and bending down to shake hands with cornerbacks.

"There are so many receivers. Even the second-tier receivers are really good players and they're monsters," said Millen, the Lions president and CEO. "Who is covering these people? We've got a problem. The NFL will be changing the rules here shortly with all these kids."

The cornerbacks arrived here Saturday night in preparation for Tuesday's workouts, and there wasn't a shut-down, take-away-a-side of the guy in the lot. None of them figure to go in the top ten. But the three best, warts and all, figure to be good enough to help a team right away. And at least one of them ought to be available when the Bengals use the 17th pick of the first round.

"There are going to be some good players there. Good enough to come in and help you right away and start," said Jets head coach Herman Edwards. "You can get some of those guys in the second round, too."

The biggest question is do the Bengals pursue an older cornerback (Antoine Winfield? Ahmed Plummer? Shawn Springs?) in the position's richest free-agent crop in recent memory? Or do they take the younger version (USC's Will Poole? Ohio State's Chris Gamble? Virginia Tech's DeAngelo Hall?) in the draft? With the salary cap tight, might they decide to go for the rookie. Or. . .

"We'll do what's best for our team," is all head coach Marvin Lewis would say Sunday.

The 6-1 Gamble is the lone top rookie corner 6 feet or over, but he's also got the rawest skills of the group. Plummer and Springs are 6 feet even, and the 5-10 Poole compares himself to the 5-9 Winfield.

"Very, very aggressive. Comes up and makes tackles and also is fast and covers very well," Poole said Sunday.

Gamble, the Buckeyes' brilliant two-way player, looks to be emerging as the early No. 1 corner, a spot that may not be around at No. 17. But Poole and Hall, and maybe South Carolina's Dunta Robinson, are worthy enough to be discussed. And even though each guy has a flaw that is keeping them out of the can't-miss top five, the mid and late first round has recently produced No. 1 corners for their teams.

Just look at Winfield (No. 23 in 1999) and Plummer (No. 24 in 2000). And the next year, the Giants' 5-10 Will Allen went No. 22. All three have helped their defenses into the playoffs.

Gamble has the size that Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier seeks, but only about a year of full-time experience at the position. Yet what a year it has been as Gamble has become a Columbus folk hero as the throwback two-way player at wide receiver and cornerback, Make that a triple threat because he also returned punts.

"Because of his natural ability, he's (not) a risk as some other guys," said Frazier of Gamble's brief corner career. "He's very, very talented. It's just a matter of time. Get some good coaching, get in a good system, and he'll be fine. He's got the physical tools you're looking for."

Edwards, a former corner, thinks Gamble's learning curve is going to be an advantage for the team that takes him.

"He doesn't have a lot of bad technique," Edwards said. "He's just learning. Bring him in and break him down and you start over and go. He's got the talent."

New Chargers defensive coordinator Wade Phillips: "They're all risks. It's about determining risks and rewards, and each team has a different criteria.

Gamble knows he's got a lot to learn, but he's got the right idea: "I'm trying to outthink the offensive coordinator and the quarterback," and he thinks all those years catching the ball gives him an edge.

"I've got a feel for how the receiver comes off the line, how they run their routes, and when they come out of their breaks," Gamble said. "I feel like I'm a quick learner. All I have to do is work on my technique, my footwork is all down pat. . .Then when I get with my team, I'm going to learn about the receivers by watching tape."

If Gamble is the leader in the clubhouse, the 5-10, 202-pound Hall thinks he should be. He keeps hearing about corners that are fast, but won't hit, or are tall but can't run, or can run, but are tiny. Hall is saying look no farther in this draft for its complete corner. He says he models his speed after Deion Sanders, his physical play after Charles Woodson, and his playmaking after Champ Bailey.

"I'm just a guy who's pretty good at 202 pounds and can get up and do 4.2 at the drop of a hat," said Hall, who plans to jack up a beastly 21 or 22 reps in the 225-pound bench press.

Actually, he corked off 4.15 seconds in the 40-yard dash and even if that was on Tech's friendly carpet, stopwatches don't lie. Some wonder why Hall, at times, doesn't play as fast as he runs, that he needs to be more consistent finding the ball in the air, and he turned 20 only last November.

But he's got the big heart as a return man out of Tech head coach Frank Beamer's special teams factory that Bengals teams coach Darrin Simmons has to love. Hall says cornerback is his passion and special teams is his love. And how does he counter being 5-10 going against 6-4 receivers?

"A 43-inch vertical leap," Hall said. "I've got the reach of a 6-footer."

Hall got suspended for the first half of the Pittsburgh for fighting in the previous week, dampening his showdown with Pitt receiver Larry Fitzgerald, but he said the incident won't hurt him with the scouts.

"It was a simple thing where I just lost my cool, heat of the battle," Hall said. "I (saw) one of my players get bombarded on our sidelines and when I went to help, somebody punched me. I punched back.

Poole knows he's got some character issues that teams are going to explore and he's being up front about it. He capped off a red-shirt freshman season with a pick and eight tackles in the Aloha Bowl, then made the Boston College basketball team.

But according to The New York Daily News, Poole was expelled for violating a team rule. Although no police reports were filed, one newspaper reported he had stolen money from a teammate. The Daily News said.

What followed was a stint at Ventura Junior College, and then he made good on his last season when he had a huge year for USC with seven interceptions, 14 pass breakups, and made sure Michigan All-American wide receiver Braylon Edwards didn't go off in USC's Rose Bowl victory earlier this month. Throw in his blanket job on Washington's Reggie Williams, and this is why scouts love his production.

"Being physical, getting in their face. Receivers don't like to get hit. They like to go around you," is how Poole explained his shut-down strategy. Here's a guy who was a big-time basketball player in high school in Queens, N.Y., and was good enough to make a hoop trip to as far away as Paris.

"Basketball helped my football," Poole said. "Playing defense is one of the best things I could do. I would guard the team's best ball handler and that really helped me with my footwork."

NFL teams probably won't like the fact he's already working on his second agent, turning to Drew Rosenhaus after leaving David Ware following last month's Senior Bowl. But Poole says his year off from football after getting suspended, along with his junior college experience, has adjusted his attitude. He says he doesn't hang with a bad crowd, he just needed to become "professional."

"It was embarrassing," is all he'll say of the BC incident. "It was stupid. I take it on my shoulders. I had to look my family in the eye. I had to look my friends in the eye."

At Ventura, he had to "fend for yourself," cooking his own meals, buying his own shoes, and finding out that he could survive not being a pampered Division I scholarship athlete. California was the place he felt he had to be in what he calls "a pass-happy conference," because, "I'm a cornerback and I cover receivers. . .so I wanted to cover the best.

"The junior college system in California is so big and it's more exposed than back in New York," Poole said. "I just felt like maybe I could change the game a little bit out there on the West Coast."

The one thing Poole couldn't change was the strained Achilles' that knocked him out of the Senior Bowl after just one practice with the North squad coached by the Bengals' staff. Now he says he just got back to 100 percent, but he hasn't had enough time to get ready to work out here.

"I really enjoyed being with the coaches," Poole said. "I was really looking forward to playing in that game."

He may be re-united in two months if the Bengals decide to take Winfield the younger.

RUDI, RUDI: The agent for running back Rudi Johnson said Sunday that he hasn't spoken to the Bengals here this weekend about a long-term contract. But Peter Schaffer said he won't be upset if the Bengals simply send their one-year tender offer next week without any more talks.

"You can't get mad about what you can't control," Schaffer said. "The system is what it is. He'll play this year for the tender and then be an unrestricted free agent next year. That's fine if that's the way it is. Rudi loves the fans, the Browns and playing for Marvin Lewis, and he'd love to be there long term. And the Bengals have a great guy like Rudi doing and saying all the right things."

Schaffer said he would talk about a long-term deal if the Bengals approach him after they send Johnson a tender. It's believed the Bengals have discussed sending him the highest tender at $1.8 million, which would give the Bengals first- and third-round compensation.

**

COMBINE HITS:** The Bengals and everyone else are always looking for a receiver that can run. What if they sign a veteran free-agent cornerback, there is no defensive tackle worthy of the 17th pick, and they don't want to draft a linebacker in the first round? Just keep in mind that Wisconsin wide receiver Lee Evans whisked through a 4.3-second 40-yard dash Sunday. . .

Cornerback Ricardo Colclough of Division II Tusculum showed up for his Sunday media session with his weight-lifting gloves. In Tuesday's drills, he'll carry in the new backpedal stance Bengals secondary coach Kevin Coyle showed him at

Last month's Senior Bowl. The 6-foot, 180-pound Colclough impressed the Bengals in his effort to reach the second round, but he's not exactly going to throw receivers around. He said he had nine reps in the 225-pound bench press: "I guess that's OK," and he's probably right because he reached this point with speed instead of power, anyway. He had 15 interceptions in two years, and three kick and punt returns of at least 85 yards. . .

Notre Dame running back Julius Jones, another guy the Bengals liked coaching at the Senior Bowl, ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash Saturday. Saturday's fasted time was turned by Oklahoma State's Tatum Bell at 4.37 seconds. . . Saturday's fastest lineman was Brigham Young's Scott Jackson, a projected center, at 4.91 seconds.

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