Two kicker option still alive

8-31-02, 2:50 p.m. Updated:
8-31-02, 11:20 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Curtis Keaton trade has kept the door open for the Bengals to keep both kickers Neil Rackers and Travis Dorsch when they cut their roster to 53 players Sunday morning.

But the Bengals have also spent the weekend mulling the possibility of keeping just one of them and going with 10 secondary players that would include six cornerbacks.

The flexibility of the two options became possible Saturday morning in a trade that sent Keaton, a third-year running back, to the Saints for what is believed to be a fourth-round pick in next year's draft. The pick is undisclosed, but Keaton is a fourth-rounder from 2000 and New Orleans has two fourth-rounders in next year's draft.

"Curtis was our top choice to back up Deuce (McAllister) from the people that were out there," said Saints head coach Jim Haslett Saturday night from his New Orleans office. "It's a good move for us because we get a talented young guy and a good move for the Bengals because they get a fourth-round pick draft pick and they're still loaded at running back."

The move leaves the Bengals with five backs in Pro Bowler Corey Dillon, Brandon Bennett, and Rudi

Johnson and fullbacks Lorenzo Neal and Nick Williams. It also means Johnson, along with wide receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Ron Dugans, are going to get chances to take Keaton's spot as kick returner.

"We like Curtis Keaton as a player," said Bengals President Mike Brown "He's got unique speed and acceleration. But we've got depth there and he wasn't going to break through. This allows us to keep another player at a position where we need depth."

Brown wouldn't say which position would benefit, but he likes what both kickers have done in the preseason. He also knows the importance of having plenty of cornerbacks in this age of three- and four-receiver sets, and for once the Bengals have some competent veterans at their disposal.

They have some difficult cuts staring at them in the secondary. Starting cornerbacks Jeff Burris and Artrell Hawkins, nickel back Kevin Kaesviharn, and swingman Mark Roman are seemingly in the fold. In one possible scenario, veterans Rodney Heath, Robert Bean, and Bo Jennings look to be battling for just one spot if they go with two kickers, two spots if they keep just one.

Rackers (4) and Dorsch (3) are perfect on field-goals this season, and Rackers looks to have the edge on kickoffs. Rackers' career 59 percentage in his two seasons kicking field goals have some thinking that both sides would benefit from a change of scenery. Some think Dorsch's estimated $325,000 bonus make the Bengals keep him. But no one is tipping their hand before players can be told their fates Sunday morning.

"We've talked about all positions all weekend," Brown said Saturday afternoon. "We may talk more. Keeping two kickers isn't usually done. I admire what Rackers has done. He's a different kicker this time around. And Dorsch has tremendous upside. We also have other needs. We have to weigh it."

The Bengals finally swung that trade with New Orleans for a draft pick three years after they turned down former Saints coach Mike Ditka's offer for all his draft choices so they could take Akili Smith.

Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of football operations, called the Saints this weekend knowing they were probably in the market for a backup to McAllister. After Haslett watched Keaton rip off a 32-yard run against him in the Saints' 31-23 win over the Bengals last Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium, he put him at the top of a list of possibilities that included Shawn Bryson, Sammy Morris, and old friend Ki-Jana Carter. Veteran Terry Allen had been backing up McAllister, but is apparently not the answer.

At the moment, Haslett is looking at Keaton as mainly a guy to spell McAllister. He's already got a dangerous kick/punt return man in Michael Lewis, and the Bengals don't need to be told that after he took an 82-yard punt all the way against them last week.

"We liked what we saw from him in the game up there," Haslett said of Keaton. "We'll see what exactly we're going to do with him once he gets here, but he's a tough, fast guy that gives you some unusual speed. We were impressed with all their running backs that they put in the game against us. They kept bringing them out and they were all productive."

Keaton, 25, a Columbus, Ohio, product with terrific outside speed and initial burst, set the club's four-game preseason rushing record with 212 yards on 5.3 per carry last year before Johnson broke it this year. Keaton hovered at the 5 per mark again this preseason with 178 yards on 37 carries, but he had just a total of 11 carries in his two regular seasons behind Dillon and Bennett.

With Bennett's versatility and Johnson's durability, the Bengals felt Keaton's work on kickoffs was the most expendable item. His two best returns last year were in the first two games and he finished with a middle-of-the-pack 20.6 average on 42 kicks.

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