5-6-01, 10:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Titans fullback Lorenzo Neal, who has blocked for three different 1,000-yard rushers in the past four years, may be set to join his fourth this season in the person of Bengals Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon.
Down to zero fullbacks, the Bengals began the process Sunday night to find another one when they set up a visit for Neal Monday at Paul Brown Stadium.
Neal, 30, regarded as one of the best blocking backs in the NFL, is one of four free-agent veterans the Bengals are mulling to replace Nick Williams.
Williams went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during Sunday morning's practice and figures to miss the rest of the season.
With Clif Groce, the Bengals' other fullback unavailable for at least several weeks because of a sprained medial collateral knee ligament, the Bengals are looking at people like Neal, Baltimore's Sam Gash, Jacksonville's Daimon Shelton and Carolina's William Floyd.
"There is no contract yet. If Lorenzo likes it there, then we'll talk about one," said agent Jim Steiner, who confirmed the trip. "He's there to take a physical and meet and greet. It's not that he was unhappy in Tennessee, but he only played in 38 percent of the plays last year because of what they do on offense and he wants to play more."
Neal, who is thought to have made in the $700,000 range this past season, should have no problem doing that in Cincinnati after the knee injuries to Groce and Williams have left the cupboard bare in the one position that was thin heading into this weekend's minicamp.
"You never want to lose a starter, but that's the one position where there is help out there," said scout Duke Tobin, who is negotiating the deal for a fullback.
"There are a bunch of starting fullbacks out there
who are available and are looking for the opportunity to play and we're a team that now has that opportunity. We think we've got enough options that we can solve our problem."
Tobin said Neal won't be here in time Monday morning to watch the Bengals' last practice of minicamp. But he'll eat lunch with the team before heading to his physical.
He'll also get reacquainted with Bengals receivers coach Steve Mooshagian, who helped recruit him to Fresno State.
"His work ethic is second to none and he would block like no other fullbacks you've seen," Mooshagian said. "He's something. He's really a good player and a great guy. And he'd fit into this system well."
Mooshagian insists Neal's wedge blocking is a major reason Tennessee's Derrick Mason went to the Pro Bowl as a kick returner. Plus, Neal has done the dirty work for Titans Pro Bowl running back Eddie George the past two seasons, Tampa Bay's Warrick Dunn in 1998, and the Jets' Adrian Murrell in 1997 during 1,000-yard seasons.
Another option is re-signing Steve Bush, a tight end who has played fullback when pressed into service because of injuries. Plus, he's a back-up long snapper, a spot currently manned by a player they would like to keep out of those situations in first-round pick Justin Smith. P>Or, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said one of the current tight ends might have to work at fullback if an alternative can't be found.
Third-round pick Sean Brewer played some fullback at San Jose St., but he's already learning both tight-end spots.
"You might not want to make Brewer do that. But you also might not have a choice," Bratkowski said. "We have to see what happens. I've played against (Neal) and he's certainly an impressive guy."
The Bengals are in this fix because Williams tore his ACL during a one-on-one session in which the linebackers covered the running backs on pass routes.
"I was coming out of a break and I don't know if I stepped on his foot or what happened," Williams said. "Al I know is something wasn't right and I just heard a pop. We made contact, but I think it was only for a second."
Trainer Paul Sparling believes Williams had his foot planted and it got twisted around, making it another of the common non-contact knee injuries.
"It proves once again that turf is not the big green monster," Sparling said. "It happens on grass, too."
Sparling said only the ACL is injured, meaning he'll have a shorter rehab and faster recovery than Charles Fisher, the cornerback the Bengals released Saturday a year and a half after he tore three ligaments.
Sparling compared the Williams' injury to the one suffered by running back Brandon Bennett in May of 1999, a player who returned last season to carry the ball 90 times.
The injury is a severe blow because Williams, 24, a third-year player taken in the fifth round of the '99 NFL Draft, was supposed to emerge this year as the starting fullback. His ability to be the back in a one-back set and catch the ball coming out of the backfield figured to be a premium in Bratkowski's steady diet of three-receiver sets that calls for a versatile runner and blocker.
But Williams ended up cheering up the teammates who came to offer condolences.
"I was comfortable with the offense and I knew all the spots," Williams said. "It's a good fit. But God has his reasons. I'm optimistic. I'm not in the dumps. I just don't like surgery and all the drugs you have to take."
Williams could have the procedure as soon as this week.
Behind Williams and Groce is second-year fullback Ricky Brown, currently playing in NFL Europe. BYU rookie free-agent Kalani Sitake failed Saturday's physical.