New look backfield

** takes a look at each position as the first practice of training camp on July 31 closes in. Rudi Johnson leads the field of eight running backs and fullbacks.**

7-7-04, 10:15 p.m.


Incumbents: RB Rudi Johnson, FB Jeremi Johnson. Hot rookie: RB Chris Perry. Big battle: RB Kenny Watson, RB Skip Hicks. Improving: FB James Lynch. Impressive longshots: RB Herbert Goodman, FB Alex Wade. Probable roster spots: 4.

The Patriot Act of April 19 Federal Expressed the Bengals all-time leading rusher to New England and while Corey Dillon is all smiles, the Bengals are all for a backfield that should give them a bit more diversity in the passing game with the arrival of first-rounder Chris Perry.

Until Perry, the 6-foot, 220-pounder from Michigan, missed a chunk of the later spring camps with a hamstring problem, he had performed as advertised. A very fluid athlete, he showed the

hands that could get him on the field pretty quickly as a third-down back after running backs coach Jim Anderson declared his skill set out of the backfield is comparable to Bengal great James Brooks.

But the loss of Brandon Bennett, who left via free agency, shouldn't be underestimated in the third-down role. For four seasons, Bennett caught the ball, blocked blitzes, and ran from scrimmage with blue-collar reliability. Rudi Johnson has already said if Perry is the third-down replacement, he advises the rookie to watch tape of Bennett.

Perry also showed enough to make the Bengals think he could be a productive every-down back at some point, but when, if, and how he gets that chance remains to be seen with Rudi Johnson entering training camp for the first time as the No. 1 running back.

Johnson is working on a one-year contract and is going to have to deal with those questions the deeper he goes into the season. With just five NFL starts for Johnson and Perry in the wings, the Bengals aren't hopping into long-term contract talks. With a tough, experienced agent in Peter Schaffer who realizes he has a client who doesn't turn 25 until October, you don't see Johnson fearing free agency, either.

But until then, enjoy how the upbeat, positively-charged Johnson has the ability to be new quarterback Carson Palmer's best friend. In splitting much of the time last year with Dillon, Johnson displayed his ample skills in the biggest win of the year. He stole unbeaten Kansas City's momentum with a jet-away 54-yard run, and then killed the clock with a vintage head-down-grind-it-out-third-and-three run.

Just think of the breathing room Johnson can offer Palmer if he continues to do that late damage, such as 79 of his 165 yards coming in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs.

The tightest battle looks to be for the spot behind Johnson and Perry at tailback. The pre-camp edge appears to go to Kenny Watson, who racked up 4.6 yards per carry on more than 100 attempts in place of Stephen Davis for the 2002 Redskins. Hicks hasn't carried in the NFL since 2001, but he's coming off an All-Star season in NFL Europe that has reminded people just how much he offer with speed and versatility as a pass catcher.

The 5-11, 218-pound Watson and the 6-foot, 230-pound Hicks both have the size and track record of a bell cow in case they need somebody to spell Johnson for anything more than a game. They also may get a chance to return some kickoffs in the preseason as one of the possible tiebreakers, where Watson also has an edge. He returned seven of his 30 career returns last year for the Bengals (a long of 27), and Hicks has just one NFL return.

Busting a return or two in the preseason looks to be Goodman's best shot at making the roster. The 5-11, 205-pounder flashed his speed without pads in the spring camps, but he also hasn't played in the NFL since 2001. But from 2000-01, Goodman averaged 30 yards per his five kick returns for the Packers

He was on the Oakland and Indianapolis practice squads in 2002 before the Packers put Goodman in their final cuts after the 2003 training camp.

At fullback, Jeremi Johnson is arguably coming off a Bengals co-Rookie of the Year season with guard Eric Steinbach. He is admittedly fighting his weight (he wants to lose 20 pounds to get to 255) and Lynch has closed the gap by showing better hands catching the ball than he did when he arrived early last season after the Vikings cut him.

But Johnson is still a marvelous big man (go back to that KC game again and his sideline tiptoe for a touchdown) who can do so many things for a big man. Alex Wade, a free agent out of Duke, looks to have some abilities carrying the ball.

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