4-17-03, 8:15 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Mark Roman has just one interception since the Bengals passed on Arizona State right tackle Marvel Smith and chose LSU's transplanted safety in the second round of the 2000 draft as the cornerback of the future.
But now, at least some of the world seems right. The Bengals ended up with a starting tackle from Arizona State in Levi Jones and Roman looks like he's going to be a big factor in their search for a free safety. If last weekend's minicamp is any kind of indication.
Roman, now bulked up to 205 pounds, picked off two passes and moved virtually like he did when he was 195, particularly when the defense went through an intense team period against the offense's unscripted plays.
Roman's play had cornerback Jeff Burris thinking about Eagles Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins and how the Bengals' new scheme seems to give the safeties a bit more freedom. The connection probably had something to do with Burris' recent conversation with Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent about his old secondary coach in Philadelphia, Leslie Frazier, the Bengals' new defensive coordinator.
"You see Brian Dawkins make a lot of plays and Mark has that kind of talent," Burris said. "He has that type of ability. He can tackle and hit, but he can cover and you know he can because he played corner. I think it's going to be a great move for all of us. He packs a punch. I saw him make a couple of big hits last year."
While this current crop of safeties struggled last season between making the conversion (Roman) and youth (rookies Lamont Thompson and Marquand Manuel), new head coach Marvin Lewis has indicated he is looking to get something out of their athleticism rather than free agency. Even cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn has been mentioned as a possible option.
But it promises to be a depth-chart scrum that lasts until possibly late into the preseason games.
Secondary coach Kevin Coyle oversaw a camp in which the snaps were relatively split even though Roman and Manuel took the first snaps at free and strong safeties, respectively. Thompson is a second-rounder who they think still has a load of potential as a centerfielder, and Manuel has been serviceable in both spots.
"We'll continue to distribute the snaps through the next minicamp and coaching sessions," Coyle said. "I really believe the evaluation is ongoing and I don't think it's going to be until through camp and we're competing against opponents before we solidify the position, unless someone steps up and just distances himself. We made it pretty clear to them and the rest of the defense that we needed guys to take the first snap to get the thing going, but that's all."
Roman said he feels comfortable in a scheme that appears to be more pass-oriented for safeties, although Coyle says it's too early for this defense to have any kind of M.O.
"I think a safety has to be able to do both," Roman said. "In most situations the safeties are more pass oriented. There was a lot of commitment to the run in the past as far as the safeties are concerned. I just wanted to come into camp and get a gauge. I wanted to put on more weight and see if I could handle it. I didn't really put on that much weight, and I thought I was able to get to places pretty well."
Roman jokes about the Bengals putting a mystique on 200-pound safeties, but Coyle also liked the way Roman moved. And, he learned a lot not just about him, but everybody else in a drill last Saturday.
"It was a team situation against unscripted plays on the second day of practice," Coyle said. "It made them realize it's about making decisions in the heat of the battle and not in a walk-through, not half-speed in a teaching session. If they have to go out and do it faster put in those situations with that kind of pressure, we hope they'll be able to respond as time goes on.
"Mark got off to a good start in camp," Coyle said. "He put on some weight, yet the added weight didn't affect his movement. His movement was good. He's working very hard mentally to learn the new system. His communication on the field was good."
Frazier's system and Lewis' demands put a big premium on communication. Burris thinks the scheme's simplicity is going to help the young players. Roman has been viewed in some circles as a tweener (not really a safety, not really a corner), but he is showing signs after switching last year that he might be able to be a solid NFL safety.
"It allows guys just to play and not to worry about much else," Burris said. "It's something like, 'If this occurs, I do that. If that occurs, I do this. I know what I have to do and that's it.' It helps you get the most out of your ability."
One of Roman's interceptions had Burris extolling his instincts because, "The offense kept running the same route, he saw it, drove on the ball and got it. You have to know the game to do something like that."
With the help of Lewis' new regime, Roman isn't dwelling on his struggles to get a steady spot.
"That's ancient history. I don't even worry about that," Roman said. "If you look around, guys don't even remember the negative seasons any more. Everybody is out looking to move forward. Marvin coming in definitely changed the attitude."