4-30-02, 7:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
All rookie free safety Lamont Thompson has done to reach the top of the Bengals' depth chart is get drafted. He knows he'll have to do plenty more to stay there in time for Opening Day and it starts at this weekend's minicamp.
"I haven't played a snap in the NFL, but it feels good to know that the coaches acknowledge what kind of player they think I am," said Thompson Tuesday from California. "I think I'm more than capable, but I know there is a lot of hard work ahead if I'm going to do it."
Thompson, the second-round pick from Washington State, joins second-year tight end Sean Brewer as the most scrutinized new starter. But the Bengals fear Brewer, who missed all of his rookie season with a groin problem, won't be able to work this weekend because of a pulled hamstring.
No. 1 pick Levi Jones moves behind starter Richmond Webb at left tackle and ahead of backup John Jackson, now No. 3.
Right cornerback Artrell Hawkins may not work out, either, because of a tonsillectomy, but free-agent pickup Jeff Burris makes his Bengals debut at left cornerback.
Defensive coordinator Mark Duffner loves Thompson's ability to make interceptions. But his message is also pretty clear to the kid with veteran Darryl Williams and converted cornerback Mark Roman roaming at free safety.
"He's going to have to come in
here and get videotaped just like everyone else," Duffner said. "We're going to watch everyone and we'll determine who should be doing what and the best guys are going to play."
There are probably 24 reasons why Thompson is getting the nod so early. That's how many interceptions he had in his college career for a Pac-10 record. It's also three more than the 21 interceptions the Bengals' safeties have had combined since 1996.
"If that's what they're looking for that's good because that's one of the best things I do," said Thompson, who racked up the 24 despite not starting until the last four games of his freshman year. "I can't really explain it. But I feel like if I can get my hands on it, I ought to catch it."
One thing Duffner wants to find out in the May camps is if Roman can make the transition from cornerback to free safety. Roman, the club's second-round draft pick two years ago, is only going to work at safety next month.
Since the 5-11, 190-pound Roman played all but a handful of games at LSU at safety, Duffner doesn't see the adjustment as difficult as some.
"It's not as big of a jump as it was for JoJuan Armour moving from linebacker (to strong safety) and JoJuan did a nice job with it for us last year," Duffner said. "But he didn't play the position in college like Roman did. We think he's a good hitter and we'll see if he can make plays on the ball. We like our safeties to be able to play both spots, so we'll see what he does. We want to know if he can do it, and if he can't then he'll be back at corner competing."
The spot for Thompson opened up when starting free safety Cory Hall was moved to strong and Armour, the incumbent starter at strong, was moved to second team.
"I like being the underdog," Armour said. "I'm going to use it to my advantage instead of against me."
Duffner is back to emphasizing turnovers. The defense responded to its goal of more sacks with a franchise-record 48 last season, but fell short of their bid for at least 40 turnovers They finished with 28, but only one team – Cleveland – had more than 40 last year.
"Interceptions come for a variety of reasons," Duffner said. "It's pass rush, it's scheme, it's instinct. The front seven has to get the pressure and the secondary has to have the instinct to make the play when the pressure gives them the chance."
They hope their instincts were right when they selected Thompson, one of three safeties the Bengals have ever taken in the first two rounds: LSU's Tommy Casanova in the second round in 1972 and Darryl Williams 20 years later in 1992 in the first round. Now here is Thompson, 30 years after Casanova and 10 years after Williams.