3-11-03, 12:10 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
You could argue that new Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier has picked up five potential defensive starters in free agency.
Head coach Marvin Lewis introduced three of them Monday at Paul Brown Stadium in Cowboys linebacker Kevin Hardy, Titans defensive tackle John Thornton, and Raiders cornerback Tory James. Another signed last week in Redskins defensive lineman Carl Powell, a possible at left end.
And the fifth is an old friend. The Bengals get virtually a new player as middle linebacker Brian Simmons moves to the right outside, his natural and college position. Hardy knows that has to make any middle backer feel good and he saw Simmons' smile from the back of Monday's press conference.
"He looks happy," Hardy said, and Simmons is, although he is going to miss the friendship and talent of Takeo Spikes. Funny how it works. Simmons is going to take Spikes' spot, which takes away some of the hurt.
"I very much look forward to it," Simmons said. "For five years, it's been kind of like playing a running back in a fullback spot."
While Lewis has put together arguably the best haul in the first day 10 days of NFL free agency with his high-octane charisma, it has been the soft-spoken Frazier who has been just as persuasive with his steel-belted resume as the Eagles secondary coach.
"The whole thing is putting players where they play best and the reason Brian was drafted in the first round is because of what he did as an outside linebacker," Frazier said.
With the additions, Lewis and Frazier have tipped their hands on what they have up their sleeves schematically with athletic linemen, savvy, versatile linebackers, and big cover corners who may allow some other corners to switch to free safety. It translates into pressure, pressure, and more pressure in a defense emphasizing flexibility, attack and aggression:
The 6-4, 250-pound Hardy led the Jaguars in tackles as both a strong-side backer and a weak-side backer, but has played the middle often enough in both Jacksonville and Dallas that neither he or his coaches have blinked in making the move.
"With his smarts and experience, that's no problem and he's going to provide us with a lot of leadership," Frazier said. "When you've got an aggressive type of scheme, you have to have smart players because if you don't, you give up big plays."
The move is easier to take because now Simmons enthusiastically slides into his natural position, giving Frazier that same gift of flexibility Thornton gives him.
Long before the Spikes' question was resolved, the new coaching staff had concluded that the speed of the 6-3, 248-pound Simmons suited him better for the outside.
"He's a tremendous athlete. Now he gets a chance to use that athletic ability in space," Frazier said. "To get some mismatches on some running backs that we might not get if he was playing the middle. We can use his athletic ability on mismatches with little receivers, little running backs. Just getting him on the edge is a little easier than from the middle."
With pressuring the quarterback the top priority in this defense, Frazier is looking to use Simmons' speed on the blitz.
"That's part of why we're making the switch," Frazier said. "Getting him out of the middle gives him different angles to blitz from, and there'll be things we can put in the package that help free him up."
All of which is music to Simmons' ears.
"I think I've done fine the last five years inside," Simmons said. "And I can still do it. But I think this is what I do best. I'm excited about getting the chance to do it again."
Frazier just loves the 6-2, 190-pound James, admitting he was his first choice on the market. Maybe because they're about the same height.
"I was known as a big corner and the guys I had in Philadelphia were big guys," said Frazier, a cornerback for the '85 Bears. "I've been accustomed to that. They're built to do what we want to do with press coverage and being physical at the line of scrimmage. We're looking for press corners and that's what he did in Oakland."
James is a proven ball hawk who has picked off 19 balls in just 21 NFL starts during seven seasons and he thinks he has found the perfect mix of scheme and opportunity. He capped off his first season as a regular this past year with a game-turning interception in the playoffs.
"It gives the corner an opportunity make a lot of plays," James said. "I'm looking forward to playing for Leslie Frazier."
James has also showed toughness, playing one game on a broken leg last season and only missing two others while starting for the Raiders in the Super Bowl. He's suffered some tough injuries through the years, but Frazier said, "They were legitimate injuries that could have happened to anybody. He stays away from the hamstrings and pulled muscles."
With James signing for an average salary of $3.6 million for the next four years, incumbent right cornerback Artrell Hawkins knows the score.
"He's going to start making that kind of money," Hawkins said. "You always need corners."
But he could be starting in place of Hawkins. Depth charts aren't worth the paper they're written on in March, but James is penciled in at No. 2 on Hawkins' right side.
The addition of James could lead to something else. Lewis said it's "a possibility," that nickel corner Kevin Kaesviharn could now get a look at free safety, again giving Frazier his much coveted flexibility.