Safeties in numbers

, 5:00 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Joey Harrington, quarterback, Oregon?

Phillip Buchanon, cornerback, Miami?

Jeremy Shockey, tight end, Miami?

OK, the Bengals' first pick hinges on the Lions taking Harrington with the third pick, or Washington trading up to take him with someone else's pick, or no one taking him until the Bengals at No. 10.

And who knows?

But one thing you do know the Bengals have to do in this weekend's draft is get at least two safeties. And they will start looking after the first round, when Oklahoma superstar safety Roy Williams is expected to be long gone before the Bengals make their first pick Saturday at roughly 2 p.m.

The only way that could change is if the Bengals can work a trade down with one of the teams that have two first-round picks in New Orleans and Oakland and somehow emerge with the draft's second best safety in Edward Reed. Reed, another Miami product with 21 career interceptions, is the type of ball-hawking centerfielder the Bengals covet.

Look at it this way. The Bengals' safeties have 21 total interceptions since 1996. But the Bengals think this class is deep enough that they can dip as far as the fourth round and come out with a starter at free or strong.

<tr>
  <td height="14" width="157">Ed Reed</td>
  <td height="14" width="60">Miami</td>
  <td height="14" width="38">5-11</td>
  <td height="14" width="39">205</td>
</tr>
<tr>
  <td height="14" width="157">Lamont Thompson</td>
  <td height="14" width="60">Wash. St.</td>
  <td height="14" width="38">6-1</td>
  <td height="14" width="39">220</td>
</tr>

Top 10 Safeties

NAME SCHOOL HT WT
Roy Williams Oklahoma 6-0 220
Michael Lewis Colorado 6-1 210
Tank Williams Stanford 6-2 220
Jon McGraw Kansas St. 6-3 205
Coy Wire Stanford 5-11 210
Chris Hope Fla. St. 5-11 210
Ramon Walker Pittsburgh 5-11 190
Jermaine Phillips Georgia 6-1 215

"We have developed a defensive secondary that is vey good stopping the run," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of pro/college personnel. "Now we have to develop that next step. The last couple of years, interceptions are being made more by the cornerbacks than safeties and you need that guy who can go get the ball in the air."

The sheer numbers say they need safeties. They only have three pure ones on the roster, and one of them is 32-year-old Darryl Williams nursing a foot problem coming into minicamp. The starting safeties, JoJuan Armour and Cory Hall, have signed one-year $563,000 contracts and head into free agency next year if they don't get a long-term deal. The fourth safety is a swingman in converted corner Mark Roman.

"This is the draft to get a couple because there are a lot of them," said Duke Tobin, director of pro/college personnel. "And there are different

kinds of safeties. You've got guys who can play in the box and play in coverage and there are a fair amount of guys who are combination players and can do both."

The 5-11, 205-pound Reed may not be as big as the computer wants, but he had a hugely productive college career. While gaining a steel-belted character reputation as a team leader, he returned two of his nine interceptions for touchdowns last season.

Reed is a mid first-round lock. Colorado's Michael Lewis, a 6-1, 210-pound in-the-box safety, could also go in the first round or at the top of the second. So could Washington State's Lamont Thompson, a 6-1, 220-pound prototype free safety coming off an eight- interception season.

Thompson missed 2000 with a neck injury, but after a slow start this season his 83 tackles seemed to have convinced the NFL he's healthy enough to go to the next level. Before playing, he needed clearance from three different doctors and got it.

"Another guy you have to talk about is Jon McGraw at Kansas State," Lippincott said. "He can play both free and strong. He's a good tackler and he's got good hands, plus he's a bright guy."

McGraw probably puts you in the third round with guys like Stanford's Tank Williams, a solid run player who could be a very good blitzer, and Georgia's Jermaine Phillips, a 215-pounder with decent hands but developmental cover skills. The Bengals say you could put 15 pounds on Williams and he could play linebacker.

In the fourth round, you might be able to get a guy like Pittsburgh's Ramon Walker, a junior who is a feared hitter in the Big East and has enough coverage skills that he could become a combo guy.

Then there are safeties like Florida State's Chris Hope and West Virginia's Rick Sherrod who were productive against the run in college and are probably going to be there in the fourth and fifth rounds.

If the Bengals take Harrington in the first round, draft guru Jerry Jones can see the Bengals having problems trying to meet their most immediate needs in Saturday's three rounds.

"They may not be able to go after the safety until the fourth round," said Jones, author of the draft publication "The Drugstore List." "If they take Harrington, they don't get a shut-down cornerback and they go into rounds two and three looking for a defensive tackle and tight end."

Although it's a need, the Bengals probably won't go that high to fill tackle depth. But they will probably do it later in the draft.

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