Too close to call

8-22-02, 2:10 p.m. **

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ The Bengals have to cut eight players by next Tuesday to get to 65 and there will be some deep ones. But not as deep as the cuts they have to make to get to 53 by Sept. 1.

Like an election run by Katherine Harris, no one knows how it will end up until the Bengals' Supreme Court takes the case.

Until then, here is one look at the roster battles, starting with the kickers in honor of their 3-for-3 effort last week in Indianapolis. Then comes the defense, ranked No. 1 in the NFL this week, then the offense, ranked No. 2.

The hot spots are still hot. Keeping three kickers is still a very live option. Going one player short on the offensive line or in the secondary is still being discussed in order to make room for six running backs.

Yet the key number is actually 45 because that's how many players dress on Sunday. Which is the dynamic that fuels the "youth movement," school of thought.

"If you've got a guy who is better than the last guy at the position,

and he's younger and has physical qualities that can help you down the road, you have to take a long look at him," said Duke Tobin, the club's director of player personnel. "That last guy most likely isn't going to dress. There is a chance to develop him. Just because you've been around shouldn't mean you get to stay if there is a younger player who is better."

The number 45 is also the reason players at this point are looked at individually rather than by positions. Another factor is, if you cut a guy, what are the odds no other team will pick him up and you can safely put him on your "phone list?" in case you need him later?

"Who is going to help you the most when?" asked director of football operations Jim Lippincott. "That means special teams, in the future, or right now, or in the middle of the season. There are a lot of factors."

If you decide to keep three kickers, does Neil Rackers have more of an upside than say running backs Brandon Bennett, Curtis Keaton, or Rudi Johnson? Does Travis Dorsch have more potential than, say, a Bo Jennings, or a Reggie Myles, at cornerback, or a Victor Leyva at guard?

The starters are in bold. KICKERS: K Neil Rackers, P Nick Harris.

Running about even: K Travis Dorsch.

Harris is a lock. As Lippincott said, "Nick has a chance to be very good for a long time." But Rackers and Dorsch look to be in a dead heat after Dorsch hit two field goals against the Colts and Rackers hit one.

Even their kickoffs are even. Rackers hits it longer, but Dorsch hits it higher. There are those inside the

club who want no part of Rackers simply because of his struggles in the regular season after he won the last two camp competitions. And they figure he only has a slight lead over Dorsch anyway.

But how can you give up on his leg? Which is why there are rumblings about keeping all three.

"We've got two kids with a great deal of talent and who have to both prove they can do it under pressure and be clutch with the game on the line," Tobin said. "Last week was a good start." **

DEFENSIVE LINE: LE Vaughn Booker, DT Tony Williams, DT Oliver Gibson, RE Justin Smith, Reinard Wilson (pass rusher).**

Backups: T-Es Glen Steele and Bernard Whittington.

Key competition: E Eric Ogbogu, E Joey Evans, T Pernell Davis. T-LS Randy Chevrier for what could be just one spot.

Steele has had his best camp since they took him in the fourth round in the 1998 draft. He had two sacks last week and Lippincott said, "He's quicker off the ball, and he's staying on his feet."

There is some concern that they don't have enough beef in Steele and Whittington behind Gibson and Williams. They would love to get more production out of the 325-pound Davis, but are still looking. Ogbogu still has an excellent shot even though he hasn't played in nearly a month with a calf injury. Chevrier is finding that incumbent long snapper Brad St. Louis is quite formidable. LINEBACKERS: LOLB Steve Foley, MLB Brian Simmons, ROLB Takeo Spikes.

Returning backups: Adrian Ross, Armegis Spearman, Canute Curtis.

Grinding: Riall Johnson.

Rookies: Dwayne Levels, Tito Rodriguez.

Do they keep six or seven? Johnson, their sixth-round pick from 2001, has been terrific. He's a smart, tough guy who is now healthy and has been all over the place, but where is the room if they keep just six?

The better question might be who makes the practice squad between the free-agent rookies? Levels or Rodriguez? Levels, out of Oklahoma State, got in there on the first series last week because of the injuries to Spikes and Foley, and impressed them with his athleticism and confidence. Rodriguez might not bowl you over with his speed and size, but he showed his instincts when he forced three fumbles against the Colts.

SECONDARY: RCB Artrell Hawkins, LCB Jeff Burris, SS Cory Hall, FS Lamont Thompson.

Solid backups: CB Kevin Kaesviharn, SS JoJuan Armour.

Back in the swing: CB Rodney Heath.

Swingman: CB-S Mark Roman

Interesting battle: CB Robert Bean, CB Bo Jennings, CB Reggie Myles, CB Tierre Sams.

Hot rookie: SS Marquand Manuel.

Grinding: FS Stephon Kelly.

Do they keep nine or 10? Some think in this day and age, it has to be 10. But Roman as the fifth corner and fifth safety could give you an extra spot if you need it at running back or kicker.

Yet, that would mean you would have to cut an extra corner from the group that you value highly behind Burris, Hawkins and Kaesviharn.

Heath played extremely well against the Colts when his surgically-repaired hamstring held up against the likes of Marvin Harrison. And they also like what Jennings did and note he has improved everywhere he's been since they picked him up off waivers from the Lions last October. His quickness and coverability showed up when he was the best DB for Amsterdam in NFL Europe this past spring and he's picked right up from there.

"That was encouraging the way everyone in the secondary played last Saturday after what happened the week before," Tobin said.

They also like the way Bean has bounced back this year, but he's been saddled with injuries, He missed last week with a sore foot and could miss this week with a sore shoulder. Myles and Sams, the rookie free agents, continue to impress and if this were three years ago they both would have made it. But there seem to be too many veterans around.

They like what Manuel has done in picking up the system and he's a certain lock to be one of the four safeties. But as Lippincott said, "It's still early for him yet. You get the feeling he's still peeking in the backfield a little bit and running past the ball when it's thrown over his head. But he'll get straightened out and be fine."

Roman seems to be secure if because he's the only one that can play both. If they don't think he can, they could always have Hawkins or Kaesviharn play a little safety, but that's doubtful at this point because those two haven't gotten any significant safety time. **

QUARTERBACKS: Jon Kitna**

Heartbeat away: Gus Frerotte

Comeback of the Year: Akili Smith.

We hardly knew Ye:Scott Covington.

It may not matter who is No. 1, given what head coach Dick LeBeau said this week about not being afraid to use the hook. In fact, it sounds like the farther away you are from being number one, the better off you are. Which is why even though Akili Smith is no longer in the hunt, he might to be in too bad of a position.

Kitna is suffering a bit from the Rackers syndrome. Why go back to him when the first results weren't that good. But it is a more experienced offense this year and Kitna has looked sharper.

That said, Frerotte is close and his live arm has been so impressive in practice that if he can coax home a few big plays Saturday night that Kitna couln't last year, that may be it.

But maybe not. **

RUNNING BACKS: RB Corey Dillon, FB Lorenzo Neal.**

Backup fullback: Nick Williams.

Battle royale: RB Brandon Bennett, Rudi Johnson, RB Curtis Keaton.

It's a nice problem, but not a nice result if the Bengals decide to keep five running backs. They didn't have this problem last year because they were able to put Williams on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) on cutdown day.

Johnson and Keaton are the NFL's top two rushers, respectively in the preseason, and Bennett is coming off a season he averaged 4.6 yards for his 50 runs.

Yes, Keaton can return kickoffs, but after his 64-yarder and 45-yarder in last season's first two games, he didn't do much. Still, there's not much to choose after him. Johnson could return kicks, but he's a more deliberate north-and-south runner, and T.J. Houshmandazeh is injury prone and will be seeing more action at receiver.

Bennett remains the best all—around-back of the three, but is his age (29) working against him? Just be glad you're not making this decision.

Tight ends: Sean Brewer

Nice debut: Matt Schobel.

Grinding for No. 3: Brad St. Louis, Chris Edmonds.

Schobel proved two things last week in his first game. He can catch (four for 33 yards) and he needs to work on his blocking, where his holding penalty wiped out Keaton's 12-yard touchdown run,

But they knew that going in and that he and Brewer are going to be fighting inconsistency. Brewer is looking for his first catch since the opener. St. Louis looks to have the edge as he nears securing the long-snapping job. Edmonds is a nice talent, but there is no room if they keep three tight ends and that's where they are headed with Nick Williams doubling as an H-Back. **

OFFENSIVE LINE: C Rich Braham, LG Matt O'Dwyer, RG Mike Goff, LT Richmond Webb, RT Willie Anderson.**

Lock rookie: LT Levi Jones.

Locked up: C Brock Gutierrez, G Scott Rehberg.

In the mix: G-T Victor Leyva, G-T Jamain Stephens. G Thatcher Szalay.

Numbers game: C Ray Redziniak, T Justin Bland.

Do they keep nine or 10 since eight only figure to dress during the season ? Szalay is an interesting guy. They like his seriousness, his quickness, and his balance. And since 22 teams pursued him after the draft, he figures to get plucked off waivers if he's cut.

Leyva-Stephens is the classic rookie-veteran roster battle. They basically play the same spots, but Levya doesn't turn 25 until December and Stephens turns 29 in January. Still, Stephens has played well for this team when called on and has experience. Then again, Leyva has had a productive camp and Stephens has battled injuries.

Stay tuned.

**

WIDE RECEIVERS: Peter Warrick, T.J. Houshmandzadeh.**

Consistent camp: Ron Dugans.

Coming on: Chad Johnson.

Back from injury: Danny Farmer.

Free-agent lock: Michael Westbrook.

Rookies on the grind: Khori Ivy, Kwazeon Leverette, Darcey Levy.

What the first six guys are playing for are their positions in the rotation. The only ones who seem to have a lock are Warrick in the slot in a three-receiver set and Warrick and Dugans in the slots in the four-receiver set.

Other than that, there's a fight for the outside spots that has been clouded with injuries to Westbrook, Houshmandzadeh and Farmer. But Farmer and Houshmandzadeh are back Saturday and some things should begin to take shape. Johnson is coming off a six-catch game and looks to be finding some of the consistency missing earlier in camp.

**

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