BY GEOFF HOBSON
It always amazes NFL personnel people how they spend so much money at the top of the roster, yet they spend so much time agonizing over the bottom.
Which is where the Bengals find themselves today, two days before Friday's preseason finale against the Lions and four days before they have to cut 11 players to get to the Opening Day limit of 53. Of those 11, the Bengals can put five on their practice squad on Monday if they clear waivers.
As always, it's coming down to health issues and special teams. With the prognosis for running back Michael Basnight's broken right wrist growing bleaker, a spot could come open if he goes on injured reserve.
But where is the spot? Does that mean 10 offensive linemen instead of nine? Six or seven linebackers? Nine or 10 defensive backs? Then there's the mix in the secondary. Five cornerbacks and five safeties? Or six cornerbacks and four safeties? The answer could mean the start of an NFL career for free-agent rookie Brian Gray or another year for former Miami of Ohio linebacker JoJuan Armour as a pro safety. Or the end of a Bengals career for linebacker/special teamer Billy Granville.
The Bengals lose a spot by keeping four tight ends. They have no choice because two of them are their top long snappers in rookie Brad St. Louis and Steve Bush.
"The thing about going light with the numbers of players on defense is it hurts you on special teams," said Jim Lippincott, the club's director of pro/college personnel. "They're the guys that have to run down the field and make tackles. A total of about 37 percent of yards lost in a game are on special teams."
In reality, the Bengals are cutting to 45 because that's how many players can dress on game day.
"The possibilities are numerous," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "If you're going to keep a guy who's somewhere between 45 and 53, you're better off keeping somebody else even though it makes that position deeper because he's on the field as a special teamer."
Here's an analysis of the roster, starting with the hottest positions. The number of players that will probably be kept at each position and the players' years of experience are in parenthesis:
OFFENSIVE LINE (10): 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); COMPETING: Scott Rehberg (4), Jamain Stephens (5); PRACTICE SQUAD MATERIAL: Mike Doughty (2), Roger Roesler (R).
The decision to keep Stephens could rest on his play Friday night against the Lions' load in Robert Porcher. The Bengals have invested a lot of time (two training camps) and money ($900,000) in trying to revive the career of Pittsburgh's former No. 1 pick. But much relies on the numbers game and the play of Rehberg. If they keep 10 linemen, both make it. If they keep nine, that means they either keep Basnight active or opt for an extra special teamer on defense.
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, S Lawrence Wright; LAST SPOT BATTLE: CB Brian Gray, SS JoJuan Armour; GRINDING: CB Sirr Parker.
It's almost a given they will keep ten DBs, but what combo? Keeping Gray and putting Armour on the practice squad gives them six corners and four safeties. Keeping Armour and putting Gray on the squad makes it five and five. The club likes Armour's size (5-11, 220 pounds) and speed and thinks he'd be solid on special teams.
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They also know Armour is a guy who was drafted by one team (Oakland in the seventh round) and picked up by another team (Jacksonville) before Cincinnati got him in late last September. So if they cut him and try to put him on the practice squad, he could get picked up on waivers. But teams haven't seen him this year because he's playing Friday for the first time since injuring his groin in last month's intrasquad scrimmage. **
LINEBACKERS (6):** LOCKS: Steve Foley (3), Brian Simmons (3), Takeo Spikes (3), Adrian Ross (3), Canute Curtis (4), Armegis Spearman (R); SEVENTH MAN: Billy Granville (4).
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. If they keep Granville, they have to go light either on the offensive line or the secondary.
RUNNING BACKS (5): Locks: Corey Dillon (4), Brandon Bennett (2), Clif Groce (4), Nick Williams (2), Curtis Keaton (R); Looking at IR: Michael Basnight (2), Grinding: Sedrick Shaw (4).
For some reason, Shaw didn't have a nameplate over his locker when they moved into the stadium and he was saying earlier this week, "I'm still here. I can play this game." And he can, but probably not here in an offense geared more toward power, inside backs instead of Shaw's slashing outside style.
Basnight's healing has the club concerned now that Oct. 1 is the operative date before he can play without a bulky cast. "The issue isn't when he gets back, but how effective he is in a big cast and when he could wear a little cast," Brown said. As trainer Paul Sparling said, "it's hard to carry football with a big cast." **
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); LOOKING GOOD: Glen Steele (3); ON THE BUBBLE: Andre Purvis (4), Chad Pegues (2).
This spot has stayed pretty static since the games started. They've seeen plenty of people play because Barndt (chest) and Bankston (knee/thigh) won't play until the regular season-opener and it looks like end Vaughn Booker (knee) is going to be out Friday, too, after his four solo tackles last Saturday. Steele looks to have the upper hand for the last spot, but they would like to see more production. Pegues may end up on the practice squad.
WIDE RECEIVERS: (5) Locks: Peter Warrick (R), Ron Dugans (R), Craig Yeast (2); James Hundon (4); Looking good: Damon Griffin (2), Practice squad material: LaVell Boyd (R), Marvin Chalmers (R).
The wideouts played much better against the Bears last Saturday than they did against the Falcons the previous week, but they want Dugans to step up his play after a tough week of practice. They haven't forgotten about the loss of Darnay Scott and will still scour the waiver wire Sunday night. Because it was such a big year for college wideouts, it's believed some competent veterans will get axed. if they're keeping an eye on teams like Tennessee (Joey Kent?) and New Orleans (Keith Poole?), someone may run free. **
TIGHT ENDS (4):** LOCKS: Tony McGee (8), Marco Battaglia (5), Steve Bush (4), Brad St. Louis (R).
Bush and St. Louis have to make it as long snappers. But the 6-3, 245-pound St. Louis isn't ready to play tight end. There are signs the quarterbacks are looking to get the tight ends involved. McGee and Battaglia have combined for seven catches this preseason, each catching at least one 20-yarder.
QUARTERBACKS (3): Locks: Akili Smith (2), Scott Mitchell (11); Scott Covington (2).
The Bengals were so unhappy with Covington's play two weeks ago he didn't see the field Saturday. But he should get some snaps Friday. They want Mitchell to get a lot of work, but if Smith has a solid quarter of work they may pull him out and tell him to think about Cleveland if he hasn't already.
KICKER (1): SET: Neil Rackers (R). The Bengals like his leg, but they'd like to see more consistency on his kickoffs. They need that because he's the only kick-off guy on the roster. Lippincott wants to see him tame his emotions more on that score, and you've got to like a guy who recovered his own onside kick once. But that was against Louisville and not the Lions, which is the one question he has to answer. Is he NFL ready?
**PUNTER (1): SET: Daniel Pope (2). He won't be going into the Hall of Fame with Ray Guy at the monent. But that's not what you need to win. Most of the time he hangs it in the air for four seconds while it goes 42 yards. After last season, they will say, "Thank you very much."