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Looking for tomorrow

Chris Crocker

Safety Chris Crocker, who missed the last six games with an injured knee, says he's been cleared and that his medial collateral ligament has healed well enough that he could play if there was a game "tomorrow."

But tomorrow looks to be a long way away with the players and owners at a stalemate over the collective bargaining agreement and Crocker has no idea when it gets settled. But as one of the team leaders, he doesn't think the defense's chemistry is going to suffer if the lockout shuts down spring practices and training camp.

"We're a veteran group. We're going to run the same system; we're going to run the same things. It's not going to be hard to pick up our playbook," Crocker said. "But individually you have to stay in shape and you have to be ready to go if it happens tomorrow."

Crocker and left tackle Andrew Whitworth agree that trying to get their teammates together during a lockout is going to be difficult. Whitworth, the team's NFL Players Association rep, says he's going to look into getting guys together, at very least the offensive line, so it can study the new playbook without the coaches.

Considering many of the players weren't even born during the NFL's last work stoppage (Crocker and Whitworth just started grade school), there's not a lot of institutional memory when it comes to 1987. For one thing it wasn't a lockout, it was a strike. For another, it happened during the season when the players were already in town. And for another, it was during an era when many players lived in the city where they played.

So a lot of teams, like those '87 Bengals, kept practicing and working out together. Crocker says that's going to be hard to do for everybody.

"It's too hard. Everybody is going to be all over the States," Crocker said. "But everybody is going to be on the same playing field. The Indianapolis Colts, the Dallas Cowboys, every team is going to be separated. A lot of guys rent here. Guys don't know if they'll be getting paid, so I don't think there'll be a lot of flying around. There's going to be a different lifestyle."

Once there's a lockout (the earliest possible date is March 4), teams can't communicate with players so new Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and his staff are trying to get the playbook done before then. But after that, they need a meeting place.

"I think it's going to be tough on northern teams like us because of the weather and most guys live down south," Whitworth said. "There'd be no reason to haul everybody up there because we're locked out so we wouldn't have a place to go.

"But I think it would be good to get the line together and just go over some stuff with the new playbook and maybe we could get some other guys. I think it's something we'd talk about if it looks like it might come to that."

Crocker has already made one concession for the potential lockout. He and wife Carrie have temporarily moved from Atlanta to Chicago as he rehabs and works out.

"We don't know how long it's going to go and my other half's parents live in Chicago and we wanted to be around family and it's closer to Cincinnati," Crocker said. "I've got a place to work and there are places to work out all over the country. Arizona, Florida, Chicago. You see guys from around the league but not necessarily from your team. I don't think we'll have a problem once we get together as a defense, but the thing will be staying motivated to keep in shape."

The specter of the Carson Palmer trade demand looms over any kind of player-only workouts. As Whitworth said, "I may have to break out my quarterback arm." Palmer has always welcomed his receivers to throw with him in California and Jerome Simpson has already put down dibs to continue. But nobody knows how it's going to play out, including his teammates.

Crocker has yet to talk to Palmer.

"For the simple fact his wife just had a kid and he's consumed by that right now," he said. "We'll always be friends before we're teammates. For selfish reasons I can tell you I want him to be here. He has to make that decision. Only he really knows. When I talk to him, he'll know I'll always be his friend first. I know he gives us the best chance to win."

FEEL A DRAFT: With the Bengals headed to the NFL scouting combine next week, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said on a conference call they're one of the teams that may be "grinding" over the eight quarterbacks that figure to go in the first two rounds.

"You have figure out the top four quarterbacks," said Mayock, who is still trying.

Missouri's Blaine Gabbert is the only one he sees right now as a potential top 10 pick and maybe not a reach for the Bengals at No. 4. From there it's a shaky list that goes to Auburn's Cam Newton, Arkansas's Ryan Mallett, and Washington's Jake Locker before the next tier of Nevada's Colin Kaepernick, Florida State's Christian Ponder, TCU's Andy Dalton, and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi.

But there are no locks here. Mayock says teams have to sell themselves that, first, they need a franchise quarterback and, second, that they can sort out their strengths and weaknesses. All of them have enough dents that could keep them from succeeding.

What has to scare the Bengals about Gabbert is that he's coming from a five-receiver offense that always worked out of the shotgun, and Gruden figures to have much of his offense start from under center.

"But you look at some of the bad games he had, and he was getting hit every play; he was getting killed on the blitz," said Mayock, who likes the fact that Gabbert did well without much around him. "And you look at the success teams have had right away lately with first-round quarterbacks, like Sam Bradford, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco. But, maybe we're due for some busts."

So, yeah, the QB picture is anywhere from hazy to mostly cloudy right now. Mayock says Newton is a better mechanical passer than Tim Tebow and Vince Young  ("He looks great in shorts") but the Auburn offense was so simple ("one look and either the ball or he was out of there") that an NFL offense might overwhelm him. He says Locker is a marvelous athlete who going to run a scorching 40, but his decision-making is in question. As is that of the 6-6, 240-pound Mallett. He can rifle a beauty on one play and throw an ill-advised beast on the next.

Mayock wouldn't go near Mallett in the first round.

"Every time I get excited about this kid, he does something from a decision-making or accuracy perspective that bothers me," he said. "It's because of pressure in the pocket."

Like everyone else, Mayock is high on Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green for the top 10. "The real deal," Mayock calls Green and he thinks Green can be physical enough against the press. Mayock was sold when he saw the tape of Green's 100-yard game against Colorado corners Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown, prospects that could go as high as the second round.

Mayock is also a big fan of LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson. He thinks the 6-0, 220-pounder can play bump-and-run well enough, but he also believes Peterson's speed and size could make him "an All-Pro safety." reported Thursday night that the NFL and the NFLPA plan to negotiate for seven straight days starting Friday. The union had a conference call earlier in the day updating any players that wanted information on insurance issues and it was Whitworth's sense that there has been no change in the stalemate.

Whitworth says the players are having a hard time getting their arms around the concept that the owners want to cut back their cut of revenue despite the game's immense popularity.

"I can understand up to a point where the owners are coming from," he said. "But everything is so media driven; all the players can see and read about is how TV ratings are skyrocketing. If there is something glaring, we want to see it."

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