BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, KY. _ With a week to go until the Bengals have to cut their roster to 65 players, the only big name ticketed out of Cincinnati appears to be veteran kicker Doug Pelfrey. Although Pelfrey and the club are saying nothing definitive about his status, you can catch the occasional player or media member wishing him luck after the Bengals make their cuts following Saturday night's preseason game against the Bears.
The other roster moves are virtually all tied to health issues. At least for the final cutdown to 53 on Aug. 27, the Bengals are mulling keeping six running backs and four tight ends because of running back Michael Basnight's broken right wrist and the fact that their two best long snappers are tight ends.
That indicates the Bengals can't go with their traditional number of 10 offensive linemen. Which means the project with right tackle Jamain Stephens might be over if nine linemen make it. It also means they could go one player lighter at linebacker than they usually do with six.
"The dilemma is going to be how many tight ends," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of college/pro personnel. "Because it affects how many linebackers or how many offensive linemen. If you keep seven linebackers, you're going to have nine linemen. So you have to figure out who is better among these last guys at those positions. You also have to factor in special teams and who's going to help you there."
Much of course depends on play in the last two preseason games. With 12 days to go until final cutdown, here's an analysis of the roster. The number of players that will probably be kept at each position and the players' years of experience are in parenthesis:
QUARTERBACKS (3): Locks: Akili Smith (2), Scott Mitchell (11); Nearly locked: Scott Covington (2).
Covington would be in trouble only if he blows up again like he did last Friday, when he let a 16-10 lead evaporate in the final 6:41 with two interceptions. The release of Steve Stenstrom combined with Covington's outing raised some eyebrows in camp.
RUNNING BACKS (6): Locks: Corey Dillon (4), Brandon Bennett (2), Clif Groce (4), Nick Williams (2), Curtis Keaton (R); Maybe IR: Michael Basnight (2), Grinding: Sedrick Shaw (4); Practice squad material: Ricky Brown (R).
Groce and Williams are set at fullbacks and Williams is to get some time as a tailback in the big-back package on short yardage. Basnight is supposed to be back by the second or third game, but can they afford to keep six backs on Aug. 27?
If not, they could end Basnight's season by putting him on injured reserve. But even though he runs too high, they like the way his powerful style fits the offense. Or they could keep him active and do something with Bennett, but that's highly unlikely because of his ability catching the ball out of the backfield and he could also be valuable in three wide-receiver sets. Shaw is a competent NFL back, but probably not here because his outside, slashing style isn't favored in this scheme. They think Keaton is talented but raw, yet if they try to put the fourth-rounder on the practice squad they would most likely lose him to waivers. So he'll probably make the final roster.
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WIDE RECEIVERS: (5) Locks: Peter Warrick (R), Ron Dugans (R), Craig Yeast (2); About to lock: James Hundon (4); Grinding: Damon Griffin (2), LaVell Boyd (R), Marvin Chalmers (R).
The Bengals were disappointed with how Hundon played in Atlanta after his nice 74-yard night in Buffalo. He had trouble getting off the line of scrimmage when defenders are physical with him, but he's still their fastest down-field threat and most experienced receiver with Darnay Scott out for the year. The club is worried about the 5-9, 185-pound Griffin's size. They're getting nervous with so many sub-six-foot wideouts, plus he hasn't been a demon on special teams. The 6-2, 215-pound Chalmers and the 6-3, 215-pound Boyd are big, interesting rookie free agents. But Chalmers has ordinary speed and Boyd is rough around the edges. They both are a year away and both could go to the practice squad. The Bengals have been discussing finding their fifth receiver on the waiver wire. But would a veteran help on special teams like the fifth receiver must?
TIGHT ENDS (4):** LOCKS: Tony McGee (8), Steve Bush (4), Brad St. Louis (R); PROBABLY OK: Marco Battaglia (5).
Bush and St. Louis have to make it even though St. Louis is only ready at the moment to be used as a long snapper. Bush is the only other long snapper and they need him to get through a game if St. Louis went down. If they have to go with three here instead of four, the snapping situation would make Battaglia the most expendable. But the Bengals still want big things from their second-round pick in 1996.
OFFENSIVE LINE (9):** LOCKS: Willie Anderson (5), Rod Jones (5), Rich Braham (7), Matt O'Dwyer (6), Brian DeMarco (6), Mike Goff (3), Brock Gutierrez (4), John Jackson (13); NEXT IN LINE: Scott Rehberg (4); GRINDING: Jamain Stephens (5); PRACTICE SQUAD MATERIAL: Mike Doughty (2), Doug Dorley (R), Roger Roesler (R).
Braham's knee injury at center that knocked him out of the preseason hurt the club's flexibility. They had to move Goff to backup center behind Gutierrez and haven't been able to get the snaps Goff needs at guard. The Bengals want better play from starting guards DeMarco and O'Dwyer. After adjusting to the playbook, Jackson is showing he's a solid backup to Jones at left tackle. With DeMarco able to play right tackle and the Bengals maybe forced to go with nine linemen, Stephens could be out even though they think he's come a long way as player. They like Rehberg's experience (13 starts) and the fact he's started at three different spots. Doughty, a big, athletic tackle, is coming around.
DEFENSIVE LINE (8):** LOCKS: John Copeland (8), Vaughn Booker (7), Oliver Gibson (6), Tom Barndt (5), Reinard Wilson (4), Michael Bankston (9), Jevon Langford (5); BATTLE FOR LAST SPOT: Glen Steele (3), Andre Purvis (4), Chad Pegues (2); GRINDING: Mike Willetts (R).
They would love to keep nine, but that's in an ideal world. Steele started strong, but has come back to the pack during games. Purvis has been getting some good penetration and they like Pegues' anchorability. Pegues could stick on the practice squad.
LINEBACKERS (6):** LOCKS: Steve Foley (3), Brian Simmons (3), Takeo Spikes (3), Adrian Ross (3), Canute Curtis (4); BATTLE ROYALE: Billy Granville (4) vs. Armegis Spearman (R); GRINDING: Ben Peterson (2); PRACTICE SQUAD MATERIAL: Alan Buckwalter (R).
They would love to keep seven, but the numbers may crunch them out of a solid special teams player in Granville. He led them in special teams tackles two years ago and finished fourth last year. Spearman has yet to play in a game because of a sore shoulder, but he'll play Saturday. The Bengals are high on Spearman, one of the most heavily pursued college free agents. They know someone will snatch him off waivers if they try to stash him on the practice squad.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (10):** LOCKS: CB Tom Carter, FS Darryl Williams, CB Artrell Hawkins, SS Cory Hall, S Tremain Mack, CB Rodney Heath, CB Robert Bean, CB Mark Roman, CB Brian Gray, S Lawrence Wright; INJURED: CB Sirr Parker, S JoJuan Armour; ON THE WAY OUT: FS Greg Myers.
The 10 locks is how they wanted it to break down with six cornerbacks and four safeties. The Bengals are on the verge of injury settling with Myers, but Wright probably had an edge on him anyway because he's bigger, faster and led the team last season in total special teams snaps and tackles in '99. Armour's groin injury has sidelined him since the intrasquad scrimmage three weeks ago, disappointing an organization that wanted to get a long look at Miami University's former defensive MVP. The experiment of switching Parker from back/receiver to cornerback is apparently over with his injured hamstring.
KICKER (1): Leader of the pack: Neil Rackers (R); Uphill climb: Doug Pelfrey (8).
The Bengals drafted Rackers out of Illinois in the sixth round to put heat on Pelfrey after snapping and holding woes contributed to the worst of Pelfrey's seven NFL seasons, when he missed a third of his 27 field-goal attempts and hit only half of his 14 tries between 30 and 49 yards.
Rackers made field goals of 47 and 41 yards in Atlanta last Friday night while Pelfrey's 29-yard try at the end of the Buffalo game got blocked and led to a 21-20 loss. The block wasn't Pelfrey's fault, but the club is more impressed with the speed of Rackers' approach, the height of his takeoffs, and the power in his leg. The latter was obvious when the club rebuffed Pelfrey's request in both preseason games to kickoff and let Rackers rotate with punter Brad Costello. Rackers put two kickoffs into the end zone Friday.
PUNTER (1): Up in the air: Brad Costello (2), Dan Pope (2).
What do you like? The ability to get a booming kick and a guy who can kickoff? Then go with Costello, who has punted in eight games in two years and holds the club record with a 73-yarder. Or do you want more consistency and more athleticism behind center in Pope, who punted 101 times for the Chiefs last season and dropped 20 inside the 20 but can't kickoff? There hasn't been much to choose this preseason, although Costello's net average has been nearly 13 yards better. The Costello-Rackers combo is attractive to the club because it gives them two kickoff men.