5-24-04, 4 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Tory James, who returns for his second season, is buoyed by the sight of familiar faces that have joined him on Cincinnati's new-look corner.
There is Deltha O'Neal, one of the guys earmarked to replace James four years ago in Denver. There is Keiwan Ratliff, a fellow-second-rounder that tortured James' beloved LSU Tigers this past season with two picks. There is Greg Brooks, the other cornerback the Bengals drafted, out of James' high school in Louisiana.
After James took stock last week of the newcomers in their first practices, he is amazed that O'Neal ended up in the Broncos' doghouse and that Ratliff was available at No. 49. But with O'Neal playing next to him at left cornerback and Ratliff playing behind both of them, James is quite certain the two newcomers are going to help produce more plays in the Cincinnati secondary.
James feels like he knows both of them: O'Neal through their mutual friend on the Broncos, wide
receiver Rod Smith, and Ratliff through his intense following of the SEC. When LSU's James heard the Bengals had selected Florida's Ratliff in the second round, he knew why they did it.
"I've been watching Ratliff and I was thinking how he was a steal where they got him," James said. "I always keep up on the SEC guys. I saw him break a lot of records at Florida. LSU was on a pretty good run this past season and they were beating up on everybody except for Florida."
The Bengals are looking for O'Neal and Ratliff to do this year what James did last year in giving them players who have a track record for making plays on the ball. When James arrived last year, he had 18 interceptions in 21 starts. His four in 2003 marked the most picks by a Bengal cornerback in six years.
"Everybody gets along. We've got a group of guys where everybody is coming from different situations, but we're here now," James said. "I can feel it in the meetings already. I feel like this group we have here now can make it work. Everyone is starting new. Here's our chance. The defense fits the guys that are here. Everybody in the secondary is a playmaker."
James and O'Neal already have a bond. When James left Denver via free agency in 2000, the Broncos responded by drafting O'Neal in the first round.
"I know of him. I feel like I know him. That was crazy. I'm glad we've got him," James said of O'Neal's situation in Denver. "I mean, that was crazy. I'm glad for the team and I'm glad for him that he's got a chance to come here and start all over again. He's a ball hawk. He makes plays on the ball and the whole secondary is going to feed off that. He's a Pro Bowl player from (2001) just a couple of years ago."
James saw some of the same characteristics from Ratliff on TV, which is why he laughs about the draftnicks whispering about his speed. As the 44th pick in the 1996 draft, James knows what a second-round corner can do.
"The guy is a playmaker, he's proven that," James said. "You can't make plays if you can't run. You can't teach guys to make plays. It's instinctive. A guy is a playmaker, or he isn't and we've got some."
As fate would have it, James also knows all about Brooks, the sixth-rounder out of Southern Mississippi. The 5-11, 177-pound Brooks came out of Archbishop Shaw High School in Marrero, La., seven years after James.
"Same high school, same coach," James said. "I've been hearing about him for a long time and I know he's a playmaker. Size is like speed. Can you make the plays?"
"Playmaker," is becoming a dominant theme for this defense. Only four AFC teams had fewer than Cincinnati's 14 interceptions last season. But O'Neal had 14 by himself in 2001 and 2002, Ratliff had nine last season for the Gators, and Brooks set the Southern Miss career record with 47 pass deflections in breaking the mark set by current Pro Bowl corner Patrick Surtain.