Safety stories

5-6-02, 5:00 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Call this one a tale of three rookie safeties:

Philosophical differences over injury protection kept second-rounder Lamont Thompson out of minicamp and has cost both sides in the real world, where Thompson needs practice time as the starting free safety and where the Bengals need his 24 Pac 10-record interceptions.

The Bengals hope to remedy the situation this week when Bengals vice president Paul Brown plans to meet with agent Mike Sullivan in California in an attempt to sign Thompson to his contract and make the issue moot.

"We're willing to talk and if there is a fair deal, it will get done," Sullivan said Monday. "But if he doesn't have a contract, he won't be in for workouts unless he has the same injury protection agreement the Bengals gave their first-rounder."

Marquand Manuel ran, tested, and moved well enough over the weekend to win the unofficial Adrian Ross Award as Minicamp's Nicest Surprise. One club official predicts, "He'll be starting by Thanksgiving:" By May 16, Manuel plans to post the list of the 20 safeties taken before him in the draft.

And then there is Edward "Pig," Prather a free agent safety and kick returner who called the Bengals after the draft looking for a job to complete what may have been the longest free fall since Mike Dukakis ran for president. As late as 16 months ago, Prather was ahead of Oklahoma safety Roy Williams and everyone else on the 2002 draft board before his body betrayed him. Now he's fighting another injury.

The Bengals' rookies adjourned from minicamp after Monday's rain drove them inside for a morning workout and they won't be seen around these parts for 10 more days.

It may be longer for Thompson, who won't work out with the Bengals until the club gives him the same written guarantee it gave first-round pick Levi Jones, which requires the Bengals to slot his contract in his draft position despite an injury.

Although the Bengals agree with Sullivan that the collective bargaining agreement requires the club to only bargain in good faith on the $225,000 tender salary offer, Bengals President Mike Brown has given Sullivan his word he will slot Thompson even if he's injured. Sullivan wants it in writing.

With Thompson cooling his heels, it's almost required in NFL camp etiquette to start talking up the other rookie safeties. But the Bengals did think Manuel was more than just another mediocre safety when they sifted him out of the sixth round two weeks ago. And he confirmed it this weekend.

"This guy has had a fabulous camp," said Duke Tobin, Bengals director of pro/college personnel. "We knew he could play in the box, but he's extremely fluid and shows he can make plays deep."

_Manuel ran 4.4 seconds on the slow burn of the Astroturf, went 36-for-36 on the club's five-minute aptitude test that contains 60 questions, and

moved well in space. He clearly doesn't have Thompson's ball skills, since at Florida he played on the line for the Gators. The Bengals' scheme doesn't really have a strong or free safety. They are so interchangeable that it's more like left and right and the more they see of Manuel, the more they think he can do both.

"If this kid is a sixth-round pick," said one veteran defensive back, "then Thompson must be a hell of a player."

Bengals receivers coach Steve Mooshagian calls Manuel, "this year's T.J. Houshamandzadeh," last year's seventh-rounder who became a solid contributor. The major reason Houshmandzadeh didn't get drafted earlier is because of his varying times in the 40-yard dash.

The major reason Manuel didn't go higher is because of a knee injury suffered at the Senior Bowl and a 4.5 40 time at an early workout.

"They looked at my knee at the combine and they said they couldn't tell if I had torn my ACL or not," Manuel said. "But they couldn't find a tear. No one wanted to do a re-check because they figured I was just an average guy and when my numbers went up, they figured I had something bad with the knee."

One NFL team called Florida's strength coach to find out if and when he had surgery and was told there was nothing wrong.

"All I've got is a little piece of cartilage there," Manuel said. "Anybody could have it. You could have it, but you don't know because you didn't get an MRI. At my second 40, I ran much better and only the Chargers were there and some NFL scouting services. But all that is spilt coffee. I'm glad I'm here. I'm glad I'm a Bengal. They believed in me and that 's good enough for me. Now I just want to make 31 teams pay."

Bengals safeties coach Darren Perry admitted he got fooled by the film that showed Manuel looking like a linebacker playing so close to the line.

"I asked him, 'Where did you get those quick feet?' because you can't see them on film," Perry said. "He told me, 'Coach, I'm going to get on you,' and he has when it comes to learning the defense. We've got hi-liters for them to use, but not many of them do and he's got the exceptions to our list of rules hi-lited."

Manuel hi-lited enough at Florida that he had a 3.4 grade point average, is a four-time SEC Academic Honor Roll selection, and played his senior year while in graduate school. His next assignment is to learn what everyone else is doing, which is why he packed three tapes for the trip back to his hometown of Miami.

"I'm getting down what I need to know, but the key is to know what everyone else is doing in the defense," Manuel said.

One of the big questions about Prather is if he can adjust to the Xs and Os of the pro game. A reconstructed knee and a questionable shoulder doomed him, but Bengals cornerback Robert Bean, his teammate at Mississippi State, thinks the Bengals got a steal.

"I don't know what happened," Bean said. "But he made a lot of plays when we were there. They let him pretty much roam and he was always making something happen. He's a closer. He can finish fast. I would think he can help us on special teams."

First off, the nickname. Pig. Well, really that is his real name because the only place he's called Edward is on his contract.

"When I was in first grade," Prather said, "every day I went to lunch I would take something off every tray that I passed and eat it. Finally my teacher said, 'You're a pig. I'm going to call you 'Pig.' No, I wasn't hungry, I just like to make people laugh. I guess I was kind of the class clown, but I still like to make people laugh."

By the time Prather tore his ACL with three games left in his junior season, he had already earned a spot on the Playboy All-American team and had people like Pro Football Weekly's Joel Buchsbaum writing, "He is big and physical vs. the run and gets high grades for his hitting and tackling. In coverage, he is not bad, but he will get in trouble when he starts peeking and guessing. Man-on-man coverage is not his forte, but he is a very good athlete."

The scouts got nervous about his 4.68 40-yard time back in March and the fact he didn't do the bench press at the combine also scared the scouts about his shoulder. P> "I should have lifted the 225. I think that really hurt me," Prather said. "I don't know what it is. I guess it's the injuries, but I still think I can play. I guess everything happens for a reason. I'm glad someone gave me the chance."

Plus, it turned out "Pig," played the "Dog," in a 5-1-5 alignment in which he was used more like linebacker, which no doubt turned off some scouts.

Prather wears his heart on his skin. He has a tattoo of the name "Pig," on the top of one of his arms and he has a picture of Jesus tattooed on his stomach.

"This is an interesting guy because of the success he's had in the past and some of it is well deserved," Tobin said. "He was a playmaker for them. He made plays at scrimmage and returning kicks (a 23-yard average his last two seasons) and those are two spots we're looking at. Whether he can do it here or not is what we have to find out. He has to stay healthy."

Prather didn't do it this weekend. He left Sunday's second practice with a strained groin.

The Bengals hope they can get Thompson to town May 16 with a contract instead of with an injury protection agreement. But since the advent of the current rookie pool system in 1994, the Bengals haven't signed any pick that early. Plus, players and agents are cautious about signing that early because there are no other deals around it to compare.

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