In the middle of it all

Posted: 7:25 a.m.

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Brooks

GEORGETOWN, Ky. - Ahmad Brooks has a new number befitting his new role as the Bengals starting linebacker. And No. 55 also seems to have a new first name.

Call him If Ahmad Brooks.

"If he puts it all together," Willie Anderson said, "he can be a monster. He can be as good as he wants to be. I was looking at the chart today. The guy is 270 pounds and ran a 4.6 40 back in the spring. He's one of the most talented guys on the team. But it could be all for naught if he doesn't apply himself."

Brooks, still only 23, can tell you himself he has some unique skills. After Friday's first practice, that one where he said it was just good to get back into football breathing, Brooks detailed his daily observations on his laptop of every linebacker he can find.

"I watch Urlacher," he said of the Bears Pro Bowler. "Just from my size, speed, quickness. All my attributes I have, he has too. I do watch him on tape just to see if he really is as good as they say he is. You can't take anything from him. I can't say I'm better than him on film. The only thing I can do is go prove it."

Urlacher goes 6-4, 258 and is one of the NFL's faces. Brooks is 6-4, 270 and is just another face in the Bengals huddle.

He knows that has to change. Veterans like defensive end Justin Smith told Brooks back in the spring that it's not just any huddle.

"They were telling me that's my huddle," Brooks said. "But I'm really not that kind of player. I'm not an emotional kind of guy. I'm not vocal. That's not my thing. A guy like Chad (Johnson), if he's not talking, he's miserable. ... I'm not that way."

When head coach Marvin Lewis knighted Carson Palmer as the consummate leader before Friday's practice, leadership became the topic of the day.

"We have seen him grow a lot. Carson is so down to earth that we used to almost think it was an act, and he has never changed," Lewis said in camp's opening news conference. "He is what he is. That is part of his makeup and probably always has been. He is so unflappable. He can focus in and see right through the eye of the storm, and that is the greatest quality that he has. I think everybody around him feels the confidence that oozes out of him, and it makes them feel good about things."

Which has to make Brooks feel good because never did Lewis say Palmer was a vocal leader. Anderson, officially the senior man now with 174 games and Rich Braham's retirement, knows.

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Anderson

"Carson's not a vocal guy. Where he's a leader is on third-and-12," Anderson said. "And he's giving the offensive line confidence with, 'Give me some time, give me some time,' and he's telling this guy to run a route and 'You'll be wide open.' The quarterback has to be the smartest guy on the field, and that's what a linebacker has to be on defense. How you play is how you become a leader."

Anderson, who knows something about linebackers because one of his best friends is Pro Bowler Takeo Spikes, remembers picking him up to go to a movie and even though Spikes was running late, he'd get dressed watching football on the TV.

"That's how a linebacker has to be," Anderson said.

The focus is doubly sharpened on Brooks with Odell Thurman not coming back for another year, a fact that Brooks just figured would happen at some point. John Thornton and Bryan Robinson, two veteran defensive linemen who played with Thurman during his impact year in the middle two years ago, think Brooks can have that same type of influence.

"If you look what he did last year in games he played, Tampa Bay (14 tackles), Carolina (eight tackles), he's a baller and he didn't know what he was doing," Thornton said. "He didn't play at the end because they couldn't afford any mistakes, but it can be his defense. That's what the 'mike' linebacker does. He can become that guy."

Robinson, who played with a rookie Urlacher in Chicago, says Brooks is simply a young guy who has done a good job learning the system, and he believes he can grow into that role. Thurman, who won't return and line up next to Brooks, made a lot of mistakes in '05.

"But the good ones have a short memory," Robinson said. "That's the great thing about Odell. He'd make a mistake and then make an interception on the next play."

Brooks has no memory of late last season because he barely played. The coaches weren't enamored of his study habits and special teams coach Darrin Simmons wasn't fond of his attention in that area.

It seems to have changed. Just look back to a year ago to this practice when he showed up a scant two weeks after being taken in the third round of the supplemental draft.

"I didn't know what I was doing," Brooks said. "I didn't even know how long we would practice. I didn't know what we would do in practice or when. And I hadn't done football stuff. All I had done was conditioning."

Anderson thinks he sees something else.

"I've been watching him the last couple of years and he's a young guy who kind of was just around," Anderson said. "I see him now with a more serious demeanor about himself, which a middle linebacker has to have. A middle linebacker has to walk around here with a chip on his shoulder."

Brooks may not have it yet, but he's getting some good advice from a guy who made a name performing at a high level inside defenses knocking off chips. Ed Hartwell is now lined up next to him at weakside linebacker, but two years ago he was one of the highest paid inside backers on the market before injuries derailed his career.

Hartwell didn't arrive until May, but Brooks says he's been generous in catching up with advice. Even though Hartwell played just one season under Lewis in Baltimore, Brooks says the connection has helped him.

"He can tell me where to be to make a play easier, or how to approach it so I'll be in the best position," Brooks said. "We talk a lot out there. We're really in the same position. We're trying to win jobs."

When Brooks shows up for work, he says he's got an extra 20 minutes before meetings start and he heads into the players' media center. Besides Urlacher, he watches the linebackers for the Steelers and the Ravens, and he loves Ray Lewis' intensity. He watches all the rookie backers. He used to watch LaVar Arrington all the time, and now he can't get enough of Shawne Merriman.

"He's from my area (suburban D.C.) so I have to give him his props," he said. "A lot of people can compare us, but he's more of a defensive end/linebacker. I can be that, too, but he might be more of a power linebacker. I might have more of a speedy, powerful type game."

But he seems to be figuring out it's more than big hits and sacks.

And if he doesn't, he's got plenty of people reminding him.

It's why he has become a marked man in the first few days of camp. In one of the first position drills, defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan spotted Brooks and told him what to do with No. 55.

"Tuck your shirt in, Ahmad," he told him. "Look like a pro."

If he does ... .

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