Middle ground

2-24-04, 7:05 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Some left over notes from the NFL scouting combine that ends Tuesday in Indianapolis with the Bengals taking a look at defensive backs:

If you had to put money on the NFL Draft that takes place in two months, you'd go broke. If you had to spin the wheel or take a hit, you'd have to say the Bengals are going to forgo a cornerback in free agency and take one with the 17th pick of the first round.

If they do it, that means that would take them out of the running for the University of Miami's next two contributions to the NFL linebacking corps in D.J. Williams and Jonathan Vilma, prospects that figure to go about the time the Bengals are picking. Head coach Marvin Lewis has hinted of a major shakeup at backer in an attempt to shore up the run defense, and it looks like they are trying to find a middle backer to put in between Kevin Hardy on the strong side and Brian Simmons on the weak side.

But what kind? Vilma, a wonderful, productive player who has the speed Lewis and backers coach Ricky Hunley covet, is barely six feet, 230 pounds. But there are bigger backers that look to be a better fit later in the draft behind a Bengals' defensive line that is currently constructed more along athletic lines than size. Of course, that may change too.

"It's early. We're still looking at things," Hunley said Monday. "When it comes to the middle, the only thing that really matters is getting to the ball, and there have been smaller guys who have been great ones. But the major thing is who they have in front

of them on the line. Who is absorbing those double teams. Look at what Ray Lewis has and has had in front of him in Baltimore. Tampa Bay, Jacksonville do a great job with the smaller, faster linebackers. But look what they have up front."

Vilma's teammate, Williams, is about 10 pounds heavier and plays on the outside. Would the Bengals move the 245-pound Simmons back to the middle? Probably not if they feel like they can get a bigger guy in the draft or free agency. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier knows the key positions at re-tooling a defense are on the line and at cornerback, but he doesn't want to make middle backer an afterthought.

"The middle linebacker is a very important part of your defense," Frazier said. "He's the quarterback."

Like Hunley says, it may be the last piece of the puzzle in an effort to improve your run defense with linemen and run-support corners. If you go bigger up front, maybe they look at Vilma-like speed. If they stick with what they had last year, they look more at size. It's like what Texans General Manager Charley Casserly said about Vilma at the combine.

"Vilma is a heck of a player," Casserly said. "If I'm in a 4-3 (defense), I look at making him an inside backer and cover him (with big linemen). This guy makes every tackle. He seems highly instinctive. Guys who are 6-0 to 6-1, like (Dexter) Coakley, they can do it in our league."

"It may be one of the last pieces," Hunley said of the middle backer, "but it's one of the most important."

The Bengals coached some good ones and played against them at the Senior Bowl and they ought to be there in the second and third rounds and beyond. Frazier said Purdue's 6-2, 240-pound Niko Koutouvides of the North is getting heavily evaluated as is Nebraska's Demorrio Williams. The South's Dontarrious Thomas is a guy that impressed them. They think Oklahoma's Teddy Lehman fits the outside rather than inside.

But the 225-pound Williams is clearly too small for the middle and Frazier doesn't think he should convert to safety. Other bigger, middle guys available later? Georgia Tech's Daryl Smith, Southern Mississippi's Rod Davis, and Oregon State's Richard Seigler.

The 6-2, 244-pound Seigler is an interesting study for the Bengals in the middle, since he comes from a defense that last year gave them rookie cornerbacks Terrell Roberts and Dennis Weathersby. He also helped teammate Nick Barnett go to the next level in a rookie year he started in the middle for the playoff Packers.

Seigler also had some help in front of him. Oregon State tackle D'wan Edwards is a guy rising up the first-day boards and he's a 310-pound athlete that fits what the Bengals have up front now.

"We play a lot of base defenses that require the linebackers to read," Seigler said. "Some schools use the linebackers as pawns on a board and they're just blitzed every down. We have to make a lot of decisions if we want to make plays."

By the way, Seigler said Weathersby and Roberts are selling him hard on the Bengals' coaches. He keeps in touch with both, and says Weathersby is going to do great things after recovering from what he calls "a near-death experience," when he got shot a week before last year's draft.

"I believe in Dennis," Seigler said. "He can guard anybody in this league."

DILLON AGENT: Running back Corey Dillon's new agent is Steve Feldman as the saga takes on another twist. The southern California-based Feldman, who also represent Dillon's good friend and former Bengals fullback Lorenzo Neal, confirmed the move Tuesday. Feldman said it's early yet for teams to talk about trading in reacting to the lack of interest in Dillon this week at the NFL scouting combine. He said his client unhappiness has nothing to do with head coach Marvin Lewis.

"He's just been too long at the dance," Feldman said.

Feldman is also representing Bengals starting strong safety Rogers Beckett and he hopes to have more talks before Beckett goes on the market with all the other free agents March 3.

"He would like to get a deal before then because he really wants to come back," Feldman said. "We've had some talks. It's a possibility."

**

ARMSTEAD AVAILABLE:** The agent for former Giants and Redskins linebacker Jessie Armstead said he hasn't heard from the Bengals in the 24 hours after his client's release from Washington. But Drew Rosenhaus said Wednesday that the five-time Pro Bowler would be interested in Cincinnati after playing for Marvin Lewis during the 2002 season. Indications are, at 33, Armstead could be too long in the tooth for a defense trying to rebuild. He played two seasons with the Redskins after nine years in New York, and had a team-high 6.5 sacks and a forced fumble this past year.

SAFETY VALVES: Last week, Marvin Lewis shook his head about his secondary late in the year. After one game in which injuries forced some major surgery, Lewis didn't know if they had just played with six safeties or six cornerbacks. With two of those guys who play both in Mark Roman (unrestricted) and Kevin Kaesviharn (restricted), the question is if the Bengals are going to steer away from "tweeners."

"Ideally," said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, "you would like to say this guy is a corner and this guy is a safety."

One down-the-road pick (third or fourth round?) who might end up playing both is Jeremy LeSueur, a 6-0, 197-pound latest in the line of Michigan thumpers Charles Woodson and Ty Law. He really impressed the Bengals' coaches with his aggressive speed at the Senior Bowl, and they were extremely

disappointed when he decided not to play in the game after taking ill.

He's proud of the fact the Michigan corners are asked to cover as well as hit in the tradition of Woodson and Law, but he has never played safety even though he has been listed as both in the pro ranks. But asked if he would rather start at safety or back up at corner, he opted for starting.

"The big thing for me was relaxing and letting the game come to me," LeSueur said, "instead of trying to make every hit a ESPN highlight."

How old are we getting? LeSueur ended up at Michigan from Mississippi mainly because he watched the Fab Five growing up playing basketball on television. He liked the helmet, too, but it was mainly Chris Weber and the guys that lured him to a camp at Ann Arbor during high school.

One of the draft's pure safeties, Purdue's Stuart Schweigert, stayed fairly close to his Michigan home. The 6-2, 210-pounder thinks he proved to the Bengals that he's more than an in-the-box safety at the Senior Bowl.

"I knew I had to show them I had good hips and that I can get out and cover. I think I had a good week down there," Schweigert said.

But we're talking about a guy smart enough to get out of Purdue in three and a half years with a degree in technology, so he knew the biggest question he had to answer at the combine had to do with off-field matters.

"I've had a couple of issues with underage drinking. I wasn't smart. I didn't consider the consequences," Schweigert said. "It was minor. Possession of alcohol. Nothing too big, but at the same time it's something that has to be dealt with and I definitely want to let (teams) know it's not going to be a problem at the next level. I've been pro-active about it, trying to mention it before they do, get it out there, and move on."

Schweigert no doubt paid a heavier price than most college kids. His father is a deputy sheriff in Saginaw County.

**

NO EYES OF TEXAS:** Texans insiders said this week that Bengals running back Corey Dillon isn't an option for their club. Domanick Davis is getting paid about $300,000 to gain 1,000 yards, and they remain high on Tony Hollings after spending a round on him in the supplemental draft.

MINORITY REPORT: Jets head coach Herman Edwards thinks another matchup with Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in the upcoming regular season is just another step in the progress African-Americans are making on the hiring front.

Edwards and Lewis, two of the league's five African-American head coaches, met in last year's preseason opener.

"I remember in Tampa Bay when we played Minnesota twice a year and it was Tony (Dungy) going against Dennis Green all the time," Edwards said. "It got to be old hat. After awhile, it wasn't a big deal at all. To me, that's when I know we've made it. When a black guy gets hired and they don't write or say it was an African-American head coach, but a head coach who got hired."

Edwards made a great comparison to the hiring process and what was going on this week at the scouting combine.

"Look what we're doing trying to draft the best players," Edwards said. "We look at everybody. We weigh them, we measure them. We should do the same thing for hiring. . . .So don't just look at these guys because someone told you. You've got to look at these guys over there because they come out of the same pool."

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