9-1-02, 6:25 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals' secondary underwent a facelift Sunday with the release of two veteran cornerbacks, while another continued his transition to become the club's Opening Day free safety.
When the club opted to keep two kickers on their final 53-man roster, fourth-year cornerback Rodney Heath, third-year cornerback Robert Bean, and their combined 31 Bengal starts were the major casualties. The surprise winner is second-year man Bo Jennings, whose speed and special teams production they hope cancels out his thin resume of nine games and no starts.
Now Jennings and Kevin Kaesviharn, the two corners the Bengals picked off waivers last October to compensate for hamstring injuries to Bean and Heath, are here and the two they replaced are gone. And they won't be back anytime soon.
David Levine, Heath's agent said Monday night that the Panthers claimed him and his $660,000 salary which goes to $700,000 next year. Levine had also been told that Bean had been picked up by the Jaguars.
"We thought Rodney would get picked up, it was just a question if he would get picked up at the same salary," Levine said. "They told us he was a solid cover corner and that the salary wasn't a problem with that. It sounds like he's going to play Sunday. They're getting him in there for a meeting with the coaches at 6 a.m. tomorrow."
What had been a major factor in the Bengals' decision is the desire to develop inexperienced, but promising younger corners in free-agent rookies Reggie Myles and LaVar Glover, signed to the practice squad Monday.
"I knew the one knock on me coming into camp was that I was hurt," said Heath, who underwent massive surgery after his hamstring was torn all the way off the bone Oct. 14. "I know I'm going to keep improving as the days go by, but I thought I had shown enough in the games that I was over the hump. I guess I didn't show enough. But I feel like I'm a young guy (28 next month), too."
Heath said he was told the way he came back from his injury didn't get him cut. Right cornerback Artrell Hawkins, who started opposite Hawkins for the first games of the season, didn't see the moves coming.
"It's surprising," Hawkins said. "They've played and contributed and the fact that they've already gone out and proven it makes it harder to accept. For those guys and for us."
Mark Roman's rise from bench corner to starting free safety has been a more pleasant surprise. Things couldn't have turned out more differently Sunday for Roman and Bean, the two corners the Bengals took in the 2000 draft.
"I think he has a good chance of opening as our starting free safety," said head coach Dick LeBeau. "We're still in the process of making that decision with the defensive staff. Mark has done well the last two games, and he's certainly has a great chance of being in that position."
Hawkins said he saw Roman make a play in practice last week that, quite frankly, he had never seen a safety make. Defensive captain Takeo Spikes, the former Auburn linebacker, remembers a freshman safety for LSU named Roman running up and down the field for 18 tackles.
"I love Roman. He's playing his natural spot now," Spikes said. "When he first got here, I wondered why they had him at corner." Then referring to the Chargers' hard-hitting safety the Bengals see this coming Sunday, Spikes said, "In college, he played like Rodney Harrison plays professional."
Some Bengals' insiders have feared that the 5-11, 190-pound Roman might be too small for safety and too slow for cornerback, but he seems to have found his niche with second-round pick Lamont Thompson needing time to translate the playbook onto the field. Defensive coordinator Mark Duffner said Sunday his staff is working on at least using Thompson in passing-down packages if he doesn't start.
Last week, Hawkins watched Roman make a heck of a play on a fade route, which is usually run down the sideline near the end zone.
"He picked it off and he's a free safety," Hawkins said. "He's playing in the middle of the field, he got a good break on the ball, and he was able to get to the sidelines quickly. And he's able to run deep with a receiver. He can be a playmaker."
Speed seemed to be a factor in letting go both Heath and Bean .The club never really forgot Titans wide receiver Derrick Mason running by Bean twice in the season finale for long touchdowns. The Bengals liked the way Heath broke on the ball and reacted to plays in front of him (like when he stuffed Colts Pro Bowl wideout Marvin Harrison two weeks ago), but the deep ball apparently scared them.
Heath thought he showed that no one had out-and-out fried him during camp. But as one of the classier acts to come through Bengaldom, Heath went out wondering instead of ripping.
Heath is the classic hero of the local-kid-makes-good fairytale. A Western Hills High School grad who went on to play at the University of Minnesota and arena ball, got his chance in 1999, a month shy of his 25th birthday.
After walking in off the street with his video and securing a free-agent deal, Heath went on to start 23 games and last year signed a three-year extension for about a $700,000 average. Maybe having an above minimum salary didn't help, but it shows how far he has come.
"This is a business and they gave me a chance," Heath said. "Maybe they've given me another chance to be with another team. I just have to wait and see and move on. People were saying it was crowded and they were going to have to do something, so I guess somebody had to go."
In the 5-8, 202-pound Jennings, 24 they are getting a guy who runs well, is young, relatively cheap, and can help their beleaguered coverage teams. Jennings' stint with Amsterdam in NFL Europe this past offseason helped his tackling because he played a lot at a linebacker-like position near the line of scrimmage.
"Bo is a guy who is very fast, he's built solid, and he's eager to make plays," said Duke Tobin, the Bengals director of pro personnel. "Those attributes translate to special teams and he knows that when he dresses on Sundays, that's his main job. I don't think we went short at that position because we've got some young players we can develop and have bright futures."
But there is also concern about the present and that four pure corners simply aren't enough in this day and age. Hawkins pointed out that every cornerback who made the Opening Day roster last year (Hawkins, Heath, Bean, Roman, and Tom Carter) ended up missing at least one game because of injury.
"It would be nice if you could, but the limit is 53, and just 45 on game day," LeBeau said. "What you shorten out of the 53, you hope to at least address, to some extent in the development squad. That is something that is not an absolute until we get through this cutdown, and then turn around to work on the roster over there. As far as keeping nine DBs, we felt we were okay there because of Mark Roman, who was, up until this year, a corner. We think that he has good experience at both positions (cornerback and safety), and can be a swingman for us. That gives us the capability to at least start out with nine, and to see how the season goes."
The Bengals also started out last year with just nine in the secondary when 10 is the accepted norm. Because of an injury to Scott Mitchell, they needed to keep four quarterbacks, but they lopped a safety (Tremain Mack) instead of a corner.