Roster intrigue

8-5-02, 5:25 a.m.

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _

Saturday's scrimmage confirmed what the Bengals' staff thought when they walked out of the draft room after signing their last college free agent back in late April. They have garnered their most talent in a few years and are facing a variety of knotty problems in cutting the roster to 53 by Sept. 1.

"When you put your bat on the ball with five good-looking rookies in the secondary, those are five guys we didn't have last year," said Jim Lippincott, director of football operations. "That gives you an idea of the competition that's out there."

The usual road map (10 offensive linemen, eight defensive linemen, 10 defensive backs) can be thrown out the proverbial window. The map has turned into a jigsaw puzzle with 48 guys who played in a game last year joined by the most promising rookie class in quite a few seasons. It's so early and so close that there are very few stationary pieces.

For instance, can you only keep 10 offensive linemen when one of the them is the reigning No. 1 pick, one of them is an emerging college free agent, and the most experienced has yet to practice?

Can you only keep three tight ends when the projected top three have never started a NFL game?

Can you only keep 10 defensive backs when two veteran cornerbacks are nursing injuries, two college free-agents are close to playing like they should make it and one cornerback can also play safety?

Do you bring in another kicker after both candidates missed Saturday?

(No on that last one, at least for now. Management is confident the talent will surface.)

Here is one observer's view inside the roster numbers. One qualifier as big as the offensive line: The only thing that is certain is that it is uncertain with more than four weeks to cutdown day. We start with the defense in honor of its No. 9 ranking last season. The projected starters are in bold:

**

DEFENSIVE LINE: LE Vaughn Booker, DT Tony Williams, DT Oliver Gibson, RE Justin Smith, Reinard Wilson (pass rusher).**

Returning backups: T-Es Glen Steele and Bernard Whittington, E Jevon Langford.

New in the mix: E Eric Ogbogu, E Joey Evans, T Pernell Davis, T-LS Randy Chevrier.

It's tough to move Whittington and Steele out of there because they are versatile and productive. But they are looking for a bigger run stuffer in the middle and Davis has proven to be a high-motor space eater who is raw but learning.

And then there is Ogbogu. Before he injured his calf (he could be back for the Bills' game), he had been the talk of the position with his speed and uncommon knack of getting underneath pads for a 270-pound man.

The off-season pickups of Ogbogu and Davis have put Evans, the seventh-round pick, into a grinding mode. So is Chevrier, who is more of a long snapper than a lineman. He snapped well for the Bengals when Brad St. Louis got hurt last year, but St. Louis is back and looking as crisp. The upside for Chevrier is that he's bigger than St. Louis.

And what of Langford? They were mad at him when he reported three days late, but he hasn't stopped impressing since he arrived. Plus, he's become slightly more valuable than last year because he's also taking snaps at left end instead of just at right end.

"I liked the way our defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage Saturday," said Duke Tobin, director of player personnel. "They pursue hard, they play hard. It's a big reason why we are where we are defensively."

LINEBACKERS: LOLB Steve Foley, MLB Brian Simmons, ROLB Takeo Spikes.

Returning backups: Adrian Ross, Armegis Spearman, Canute Curtis, Riall Johnson.

Rookies: Jermaine Petty, Dwayne Levels, Tito Rodriguez.

You can mail this one in. Along with receivers and backs, it's the deepest spot on the roster. The big question: Do you keep just the first six, or is Johnson talented enough that you keep seven backers and go shy somewhere else?

SECONDARY: RCB Artrell Hawkins, LCB Jeff Burris, SS Cory Hall, FS Lamont Thompson.

Returning backups: CB Kevin Kaesviharn, CB Robert Bean, CB-S Mark Roman, CB Rodney Heath, CB Bo Jennings, SS JoJuan Armour.

Hot rookies: SS Marquand Manuel, FS Stephon Kelly, CB Reggie Myles, CB Tierre Sams.

Hawkins and Heath haven't been able to stay healthy as they rehab from injuries, so all signs point to keeping six corners with Roman able to swing over to safety. If Heath can show he's healthy, it's a battle royale between two contributors last year in Bean and Jennings. But Myles and Sams, two college free agents from Alabama and Fresno State, respectively, who were the talk of minicamp, haven't let up.

"It's their movement skills," Lippincott said. "In the scrimmage, Myles could have taken better angles on the receivers and Sams could have tackled a little better. But you can't teach quickness and they both have it."

Kelly, another college free agent from Winston-Salem State, has Thompson-like range and size, but he's got a fight on his hands with the second-round lock. Manuel, a sixth-rounder, and Armour, the incumbent strong safety moved to second team, appear like they should make it.

"Lamont looked fast, but he didn't get many opportunities in the scrimmage," Tobin said. "Marquand showed that he can play in this league." **

Tight ends: Sean Brewer**

Returning backups: Kirk McMullen, Brad St. Louis.

Projected No. 2: Matt Schobel.

Very interesting: Chris Edmonds.

Brewer showed Saturday he can run down the field, but he still doesn't have a catch when the refs are working and he still has to improve his blocking. Schobel gets his first look Friday after missing Saturday with a rib-cage injury, so this position remains a grab bag.

They may have to keep St. Louis because of his long snapping (his velocity is the quickest in camp) and because he's the most veteran tight end and can play in a pinch. McMullen is a terrific gamer with some experience, and then there is the Edmonds factor.

Edmonds, a converted linebacker, is still the most athletic of the bunch even though he's been there just 10 days. He can run, has excellent hands, and is a willing blocker. It would seem to be a tremendous gamble to keep him as one of the three. But what about one of four? And can you afford four untried tight ends? **

OFFENSIVE LINE: C Rich Braham, LG Matt O'Dwyer, RG Mike Goff, LT Richmond Webb, RT Willie Anderson.**

Returning backups: C Brock Gutierrez, G Scott Rehberg, T John Jackson, G-T Victor Leyva, G-T Jamain Stephens.

Lock rookie: LT Levi Jones.

Emerging rookie: G Thatcher Szalay.

New in the mix: C Ray Redziniak, T Justin Bland.

Jones and Szalay have made this thing a traffic jam. Jones, of course, makes it, and Szalay, a rookie free-agent from Montana, is giving it a good go. They think the 6-4, 303-pounder could eventually be a center.

"He looks to be a versatile guy with anchorability," Lippincott said. "We had to go through a lot of teams to get him. He was coveted by a lot of the league."

Jackson, 37, figures to have another week before he makes his practice debut in an effort to make his 15th roster as he recovers from an angiogram.

Jones didn't disappoint Saturday.

"He showed he can get to that second level in the running game," Tobin said. **

RUNNING BACKS: RB Corey Dillon, FB Lorenzo Neal.**

Returning backups: RB Brandon Bennett, RB Curtis Keaton, Rudi Johnson, FB Nick Williams.

Rookies: FB Jason Murray, FB Harold Jackson.

Last year, the Bengals kept just one fullback because Williams ripped up his knee and that allowed them to keep four running backs. But Williams is back and even though he has played virtually no tight end this camp, he figures into the equation there as the H-Back. So it looks to be a joust between Keaton's third-year speed and Johnson's second-year power.

They both showed why the Bengals like them Saturday. While Keaton scooted for 24 yards on five carries, Johnson bulled for 29 yards on six carries. Keaton had just an average year as a kick returner last season and it could come down to the fact that Dillon and Johnson look to be the only guys who can consistently carry 20 times a game. Or Keaton's speeed could carry him in the pre-season games.

"Our other guys showed they're more than other guys," Tobin said. "Keaton gives you that quickness that few linebackers can match on the perimeter and you don't knock Rudi off his feet by just hitting one of his legs. He's a strong runner and he's got good vision. We may be a little heavy there, but it's heavy with talent." **

WIDE RECEIVERS: Peter Warrick, T.J. Houshmandzadeh.**

Returning backups: Chad Johnson, Ron Dugans, Danny Farmer.

Free-agent lock: Michael Westbrook.

Rookies on the grind: Khori Ivy, Michael Slater, Chris Archie, Kwazeon Leverette, Darcey Levy.

The first six are it and the other guys are playing for a practice squad spot with the leading candidate NFL Europe star Ivy.

The big question is trying to compensate for Westbrook's speed and experience while he rehabs his broken left wrist. The leader at the turn is Houshmandzadeh

Last year, the big question was if keeping six was a good idea. After the five guys who played here last season came up with at least 98 yards or a touchdown in the last two games, it's no longer an issue.

QUARTERBACKS: Jon Kitna

Returning No. 3: Akili Smith

Vegas favorite: Gus Frerotte

Brady-in-waiting: Scott Covington.

Kitna isn't going to go away. Yes, Frerotte has the better arm and the better pocket presence when stepping up to throw. But Kitna has a knack for moving the ball. He also has a knack for throwing killer interceptions and he'll have to stay away from those starting Friday.

KICKERS: K Neil Rackers, P Nick Harris.

Drafted competition: K-P Travis Dorsch.

Sudden thought after Rackers and Dorsch each missed field goals Saturday: They have two punters in Harris and Dorsch and a kick-off guy in Rackers or Dorsch, but no field- goal kicker. For the moment, the Bengals disagree and think Rackers or Dorsch can do the job.

"Both guys have what scouts are looking for," Tobin said. "I think it's too early to be alarmed. I don't think anybody is going to disagree that they need to be more consistent, but there is no question that the talent is there."

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