4-8-02, 6:55 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Concerns that rare and serious hamstring injuries to quarterback Akili Smith and cornerback Rodney Heath would keep them out of the start of training camp are slowly diminishing.
Indeed, after Heath's first workout Monday with cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle, there is "an outside chance," Heath could be cleared for next month's minicamp or the following four weekly voluntary May camps.
Trainer Paul Sparling also said there is "an outside chance," Smith would be ready for the Bengals' first training camp practice July 26 at Georgetown College. A player who participates in training camp isn't eligible for the physically unable to perform list (PUP), which shelves a player for the first six weeks of the regular season.
Smith's injury is having no impact on the Drew Bledsoe trade talks, which have apparently died down in Cincinnati. Bengals President Mike Brown reiterated Monday what he has been saying the entire offseason. He doesn't want to trade the 10th pick in the April 20-21 NFL Draft and has no plans to give up his first-round pick.
Brown won't comment publicly about Bledsoe, but that would seem to indicate he also won't flop picks with New England because moving down P>
from No. 10 to the bottom of the round basically gives Cincinnati two second-round picks and no first-rounder.
The Bengals could get a quarterback with the 10th pick (Oregon's Joey Harrington), or a variety of other players that include both kinds of tackles and Miami of Florida cornerback Phillip Buchanon. Heath's progress has no impact on that first pick because the Bengals have signed up their starting cornerbacks in Artrell Hawkins and Jeff Burris
And cornerback Mark Roman's impending move to a swingman doubling as a backup for both safety spots also won't affect the club's search for a young free safety in the draft. H-Back Nick Williams' move to tight end also won't deter them from looking at a tight end in the first three rounds.
"Now that Mark is going to have three years in the system, this should be a good time for him to make the move," Coyle said. "We've already put a lot on the kid because we've played him both outside and inside at corner, so he should be able to handle it mentally."
The 185-pound Roman, a second-round pick in 2000, is apparently bulking up after a season in which he started eight games. He replaced Heath when Heath was injured and stayed in the lineup until a dislocated middle finger sidelined him for the final three games. Roman started 30 of his 37 games at LSU at free safety, making the switch heading into his senior season. That's where he racked up most of his 10 interceptions (three for touchdowns), five forced fumbles, and 21 passes defensed while at school.
With Chris Carter gone to Houston, the only backup safety on the roster is 32-year-old Darryl Williams coming into minicamp with an injured foot that may or may not keep him out of workouts. Coyle plans to work Roman at both safety spots.
David Levine, Williams' agent, said his client should be out of a walking boot the week before the May 3-6 minicamp and that the team will make the call if he can practice. Levine said the injury won't be a problem and that it is related to the severely sprained left foot he suffered back in August when he missed the last two pre-season games.
"The thinking was to give him rest for a month and he'll be fine. If this was Sept. 1, he'd be out there," Levine said.
Coyle, meanwhile, might be able to rest Williams while he works in Roman.
"It's a luxury to have a versatile guy who can cover like Mark and also put him into space out there," Coyle said. "He's already played a little bit of safety in one of our (pass packages) and this really should give us some flexibility. We're going to take a look and see what we've got."
Coyle got his first look at Heath since the coach led the cornerbacks in pre-game drills at Paul Brown Stadium Oct. 14. He said he put Heath through the same workouts he is currently giving the college defensive backs he is scouting.
Although the Bengals are looking for more explosion out of his legs, they are pleased Heath has progressed this far since completely tearing his hamstring in three places against the Browns.
"It's only been six months, but the next step for him is his explosion and change of direction," Coyle said. "I was very pleased to see where he is at this point. As far as movement limitations, he could do everything. It was real positive from a standpoint of watching him push off and move."
Sparling cautioned the Bengals don't want to push Heath because of the delicacy of the injury and he may not be cleared in time for the May workouts. He also stressed similar care with Smith as he recovers from his day-after-Christmas surgery that repaired a hamstring torn in two places.
"Akili continues to do well," Sparling said. "He's about ready to do some limited drop-back passes, but not at full speed."