Roster road map

7-30-01, 12:15 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ As the Bengals dissect films from last Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage, here is just one observer's road map of the position battles before this Saturday's pre-season opener in Chicago.

Of course, a lot of water flows under the bridge before the final 53-man roster has to be submitted 4 p.m. Sept. 2. They haven't even decided on how many players to keep at most positions, never mind which players.

Just look at wide receivers, running backs and tight ends. Here are the possible knotty problems:

Do they have to sacrifice running back Curtis Keaton's quickness for wide receiver Danny Farmer's smarts?

Do they trade fullback Clif Groce's professionalism for tight end Marco Battaglia's versatility in an offense that finally fits him?

Which versatile, well thought of veteran defensive linemen are going to be looking for work?

For instance, this particular analysis has just nine defensive backs when usually there are 10. If they want to go with the traditional number, they'd have to make a move elsewhere.

As someone said in a training camp far, far away. "That's why they play the games."

The number of players next to the position is how many the Bengals might keep at that spot depending on injuries and performance during the next 34 days.

The number next to player denotes how many years in the NFL.

QUARTERBACKS (3)

Locks: Jon Kitna (5), Scott Mitchell (12), Akili Smith (3); Unlock: Scott Covington (3).

Kitna looked most comfortable in the scrimmage and Mitchell continues to garner respect from his teammates. But some saw improvement in Smith Saturday.

"Akili was more decisive than he has been," said Jim Lippincott, the club's director of pro/college personnel. "He was more fundamentally sound holding the ball and getting off the line of scrimmage."

**RUNNING BACKS (4)

Locks:FB Lorenzo Neal (9), RB Corey Dillon (5);Virtual locks:* R Brandon Bennett (3), RB Rudi Johnson (R); *On the bubble:* RB Curtis Keaton (2), RB Michael Basnight (3), FB Clif Groce (5), FB Kenneth Williams (1).

Saturday's scrimmage showed why the Bengals want to keep Keaton. They don't have a back with his quickness. But it's also doubtful they will cut Johnson since he looks to be the only other every-down running back behind Dillon.

Plus, Johnson has looked impressive without the ball,

such as picking up blitzes, and he has the potential for learning the fullback spot.

Still, if Keaton continues to flash they may have to find a spot for him because he can also return kicks.

With the possibility that Nick Williams could return in November off ACL surgery, the Bengals are mulling keeping just one fullback until then. Neal looks to be the guy, even though Groce has come back about 10 pounds lighter at 236 pounds and always impresses with his work ethic. **

WIDE RECEIVERS (6)

Locks:Chad Johnson (R), Darnay Scott (8), Peter Warrick (2); *Virtual lock: TJ. Houshmandzadeh (R); *Next tier:* RonDugans (2), Danny Farmer (2); Fashing: Chad lummer (2), Damon Griffin (3); Griding: Craig Yast (3), Malcolm Johnson (3); Practce squad fodder: Ramondo North (R).

Chad Johnson looks to be the real deal. They know he can run past people, but his two leaping catches in the middle and on the sideline in the scrimmage show how well he can catch with his hands away from his body. And Scott's 17-yard catch over the middle is more evidence he's getting his mind right from the broken leg.

While Houshmandzadeh, Farmer, Dugans and Malcolm Johnson sat out the scrimmage with various nicks, Plummer (a 20-yarder) and Griffin (a 13-yarder), got their names back in the mix. Plummer has to pick up his blocking if he's going to make it and the 5-9 Griffin is fighting the size issue along with the emergence of Houshmandzadeh and Warrick as returners.

Dugans is regarded as a player who makes few mistakes and is solid on special teams while Farmer has terrific hands. They could end up jousting for the last spot if they keep just five receivers, but six would seem more likely because of offen sive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's penchant for three-receiver sets.

**TIGHT ENDS: (4)

Locks:Tony McGee (9), Sean Brewer (R), Brad St, Louis (2);Virtual lock:* Mrco Battaglia (6); *Practice squad fodder:* Kirk McMullen (1)

Brewer has looked competent because he's basically coming out of the same pass offense. But tight ends coach Frank Verducci says he has a learning curve on blocking in the run game.

So Battaglia is valuable because of his experience and his H-Back ability, which Bratkowski is known to use. Plus, Battaglia, who comes back from knee surgery in about 10 days, knows the blocking scheme if they keep just one fullback and they use the tight end in that spot.

**OFFENSIVE LINE (10):

Locks:T Willie Anderson (6), T Richmond Webb (12), G Matt O'Dwyer (7), G Mike Goff (4), C Rich Braham (8), T John Jackson (14), T Jamain Stephens (6), G-C Victor Leyva (R).Virtual lock:* CG Brock Gutierrez (5); *Looking good:* G Sott Rehberg (5); Ginding: C Rogr Roesler (1); T Mike Doughty (2), G Jeff Chase (R), Injred: T Freddie Moore (R).

Lippincott says Stephens is the most improved player in camp and now can play three spots: right tackle, right and left guard. The Bengals hope Webb looks quicker than he has early after he loses about 10 more pounds.

Leyva is a nice prospect, but they need Gutierrez as the backup center this season so the rookie gets some experience under his belt. They like Rehberg's smarts as well as his experience of 19 starts at four different spots. Moore, a free agent out of Florida A&M, is highly regarded and was making a push as a guard-tackle until he hurt his knee. When he comes back in two months, he's a practice squad candidate.

**DEFENSIVE LINE (8)

Locks:T Oliver Gibson (7), T Tony Williams (5), T Tom Barndt (6), E Justin Smith (R), E Vaughn Booker (8), E John Copeland (9);Looking good:* ET Bernard Whittington (8); *On the bubble:* E-T Glen Steele (4), E Reinard Wilson (5), E Jevon Langford (6) T-E Kevin Henry (9), T Jeff Boyle (R).

Maybe the closest joust on the team and where defensive coordinator Mark Duffner refuses to say there are any locks.

"We're getting a lot of good play from a lot of good guys and all you can say is it's real early yet."

Booker got good reviews from the scrimmage, where club observers said he looked strong against Webb. Williams had a couple change-of-direction plays that stood out. Whittington turned in a solid effort at end after a so-so first week of practice.

"He was much more explosive, made tackles inside, and really used his hands well," Lippincott.

Duffner lauded Langford for his sack and fumble recovery in the scrimmage and Duke Tobin, the Bengals' other director of pro/college personnel, said Wilson has enjoyed his best camp by continuing to pound on people with his sheer strength. Henry is an interesting case. By the time the ex-Steeler veteran returns from arthroscopic elbow surgery, he'll have to make up acres of lost ground after the first two pre-season games.

**LINEBACKERS (7)

Locks:Steve Foley (4), Brian Simmons (4), Takeo Spikes (4), Adrian Ross (4), Armegis Spearman (2), Canute Curtis (5);Near lock:* Rall Johnson (R); *Practice squad fodder:* Chris Edmonds (R), Rashad Harris (R), Kamal Shakir (R).

It continues to be the strongest spot on the club. Johnson is a good tackler who has some pass-rush moves and can back up Foley and Ross at left outside linebacker.

A possible move to watch if the Bengals want to create a spot could be putting Johnson on the practice squad and using JoJuan Armour as a swing man between safety and linebacker.

But that's a longshot since Armour just switched from linebacker to strong safety and went to NFL Europe to learn the position.

**SECONDARY (9)

Locks:CB Artrell Hawkins (4), CB Rodney Heath (3), CB Tom Carter (9), CB Robert Bean (2); SS Cory Hall (3), SS Tremain Mack (5), FS Chris Carter (5), Darryl Williams (10); **Battling: CB Mark Roman (2), CB Carlton Gray (9), SS JoJuan Armour (3), CB Kenny Bryant (R), S Jared Lee (R).

Here's where they could go with 10. Roman impressed cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle with his tackling Saturday and there have been some whispers he might be able to swing as a safety. There's also a school of thought that says Armour has to be on this club somewhere because of his special teams speed.

Maybe the two biggest camp surprises have been Hawkins and Tom Carter after last season's benchings. Hawkins had the scrimmage's lone interception and Coyle said Carter was solid in the game after a good week of practice.

**KICKER (1)

Battle Royale:** Neil Rackers (2), Richie Cunningham (4).

Each missed a field goal Saturday, but the challenger Cunningham's miss from 46 might have hurt him more than the incumbent Rackers' miss from 52. The Bengals consider kicks from 45 and in "layups." It's a close race, but it is probably Rackers' job to lose because of his leg strength.

**PUNTER (1)

Battle Royale II:** Daniel Pope (3), Will Brice (3).

The race is nearly a dead heat when it comes to length, hang time, and quickness of the operation. The incumbent Pope is a little longer this year and Brice is so much quicker getting the ball to his foot this time around that he's a different punter than the guy who struggled here in '99.

Brice has the bigger foot, but hasn't separated himself in kickoffs. The Bengals also like Pope's athleticism as a holder and behind center.

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