Veterans feel heat

6-11-01, 7:00 a.m.

For pro football scouts, it's never too early to take a look at the roster. That's what they do every day of the year.

But after a month of workouts without pads, it is too early to make the cuts. Of course, that doesn't mean the debate hasn't started all ready, as evidenced by a recent roundtable discussion.

Bengals' scouts Paul Brown, Jim Lippincott and Duke Tobin sat down with Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com after head coach Dick LeBeau finished the club's May workouts.

The scouts agree it is hard to get excited about what just transpired with the players wearing only helmets and shorts. But they also agree there is more depth headed to Bengals training camp next month than in recent memory.

"We always had one position group or maybe two where we were cutting a pretty good player," says Lippincott, the club's director of pro/college personnel. "This year, I think you look at almost every position group, with the possible exception of linebacker, and you could be cutting a veteran player who should be in the league."

A few reminders here before venturing into this mine field in June. These are the scouts' observations and not the thoughts of the coaching staff.

All projections, of course, are made with the big "it's early" qualifier.

And as you will see, the one thing that it is really too early for is consensus.

QUARTERBACKS

Locks: Akili Smith, Jon Kitna, Scott Mitchell.

Odd Man Out: Scott Covington.

Brown: I thought all three of them did pretty well. The one I was probably surprised by the most was Mitchell. I thought he looked very comfortable and confident in the offense. It looks like it's going to come down to a lot of competition in camp. I would think it's pretty even.

Lippincott: I don't see it all that equal right now. Nobody matches the ability of Akili, but the other two have had excellent practices. I agree with Paul that Mitchell was the biggest surprise.

Tobin: The only way quarterbacks separate themselves is when the heat is on in pressure situations. When you know you're going to get hit, when you have to escape the pocket, when you have to finish plays. We haven't seen that yet because we've only seen them in controlled situations. In seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 when they know they aren't going to get hit. A veteran guy like Mitchell will look better in situations like that. It's too early for a projection or to make an assessment.

Hobson: Dick thinks Akili came back a more mature player.

Lippincott: I do, too. I've seen a lot of improvement there. But I still don't see the mental grasp that Mitchell has.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Locks: Darnay Scott, Peter Warrick, Chad Johnson. Almost-a-lock: T.J.

Houshmandzadeh. Catching eyes: Chad Plummer. Veterans Battle Royale: Ron Dugans, Danny Farmer, Craig Yeast, Damon Griffin. Practice squad potential: LaVell Boyd, Ramondo North, Chris Rosier.

Lippincott: From top to bottom, regardless of how you rate them, it's the strongest group of receivers in my 10 years here. We've got 12 of them and all of them have done something in a practice or two that has showed you they have some worth.

Hobson: T.J. made a big impression for a seventh-round pick. He looks to be a lock whether you go with five or six receivers.

Tobin: It looks like he's been a real find at where we got him. He's a guy that has strong hands when he catches. He's got quick feet in and out of his routes. He's got good size and I anticipate he's going to be a fine blocker. He shows he just has that kind of mentality. He's a versatile guy who should be a solid special teamer.

Lippincott: If he had been able to be here for more than three days (of minicamp), maybe he'd be a lock. But I'm not too sure Plummer hasn't passed him.

Hobson: All you guys seem to like Plummer.

Brown: He has looked good in this camp. He's probably been here every day. It looks like he knows what he's doing in the offense and he has caught the ball well. But I'd like to see him in pads.

Lippincott: I've been really impressed with Plummer's hands and his moves after the catch. Of course, we haven't played the games yet. But I don't know how we can cut Plummer right now. The big thing for him will be if he can play special teams, but there's no question in my mind he deserves to make our team so far. I would say it's a battle with Farmer and Dugans for the sixth spot.

Hobson: You can ask this about every position in May and June, but what can these practices tell you?

Lippincott: Part of the process is not only evaluating what a player has done in the last couple of weeks, but what he's done the last couple of years. When we drafted Yeast, it was as a third, fourth, fifth receiver, and punt returner. Well, he's lost those jobs. We picked up Griffin to return kicks and punts and he's not doing that anymore. This organization has always looked for a size/speed receiver. In that order.

RUNNING BACKS

Locks: RB Corey Dillon, RB Rudi Johnson, FB Lorenzo Neal. Veterans Battle Royale : RB Curtis Keaton, RB Brandon Bennett, RB Michael Basnight, FB Clif Groce, FB Ricky Brown.

Hobson: This is a real interesting spot because you could keep just four guys here. With only one fullback.

Brown: That depends so much on how camp plays out and what we need at other spots after injuries and playing the games. But there are a lot of different ways to go there.

Lippincott: Those questions will be answered in training camp and how we get to 53 players. Five or six receivers? Four or five backs? Three or four tight ends? If we only had one fullback, that probably means four tight ends, and we've got big receivers. A decision like that could come down between Clif Groce and (tight end) Marco Battaglia. I remember days around here when we were very happy we had Clif Groce. And Marco has practiced well. **

TIGHT ENDS:**

Locks: Tony McGee, Sean Brewer, Brad St. Louis. But what about? Marco Battaglia. **

Practice squad potential:** Jason Gavadza, Kirk McMullen.

Hobson: It looks like you've seen enough from Brewer to confirm in your own mind that he wasn't a reach in the third round.

Brown: He looked pretty good, didn't he? He caught the ball well. He looks pretty fluid. He's obviously a big guy who can run and get down the field. He looked like a player.

Tobin: The thing about Brewer is that we haven't seen his best asset yet. He's a big, strong natural blocker. He's impressive with what we've seen so far. He's a guy with functional speed who stretches the field, but we haven't seen him block yet and that's what he does best. **

Hobson:** Marco can't be counted out yet. He seems to be getting interest from offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski because he fits so well in his offense as the "move," or pass-catching tight end.

Lippincott: I think that's true. A guy like McMullen has helped himself playing in (NFL) Europe. **

OFFENSIVE LINE**

Locks: T Willie Anderson, T Richmond Webb, T John Jackson, C Rich Braham, G Matt O'Dwyer, G Mike Goff, G Victor Leyva. Virtual lock: C Brock Gutierrez. Probable lock: T Jamain Stephens. Veterans Battle Royale: G Scott Rehberg, T Mike Doughty, C Roger Roesler. Practice squad potential: T Freddie Moore, Jeff Chase, Anthony Byrd.

Tobin: The positive side about cutting good players is it means you're keeping backups that are potential starters. The left-over guys are quality. You can see that on the two lines and right now we've got enough depth to sustain injury. That's something we haven't had in the past. **

Lippincott:** I don't think we're out of the woods yet on the offensive line. We've got tackles who need to lose weight and increase their stamina. I think we're OK at guard and center.

Tobin: That said, we do have tackles who have played in this league at the highest level possible. They understand what it takes to play in the league. We've got a left tackle (Webb) who was in the second round of the playoffs last year and was his team's franchise free agent as recently as a year ago. Not three years ago. Not two. But last year.

Lippincott: There's no question that when we did film work on him, the man can play. He knows he needs to get ready now.

Hobson: It looks like Leyva is a good pick in the fifth round.

Lippincott: I don't think it's going to be very long before he's playing some at guard. He's been very impressive. So has (tackle) Freddie Moore. He's a college free agent and as raw as can be, but he's got a chance to be a factor for us. He's a perfect practice squad candidate.

Hobson: It's hard for Brock Gutierrez not to make the team.

Tobin: The thing you have in Gutierrez is that he can play both center and guard in a pinch. You need a good backup center and he is that, plus he can fill in at guard. He can get you through a game until you can find somebody more suited to play on a longer basis. **

DEFENSIVE LINE**

Locks: DEs Justin Smith, Vaughn Booker, John Copeland. DTs Oliver Gibson, Tony Williams. Semi-locks: DT Tom Barndt, DE Kevin Henry. Veterans Battle Royale: DT/DE Glen Steele, DE Jevon Langford, DE Reinard Wilson. Practice squad material: DTs Jeff Boyle, Calvin Lewis.

Brown: Justin has looked impressive right out of the box. With linemen, it's hard to judge them not being in pads, but it looks like he's got the quickness we have been looking for in that spot.

Hobson: Even though you've drafted Smith, signed Henry and re-signed Copeland, it sounds like you'd still take another defensive end. Apparently there is still interest in (Tampa Bay's) Chidi Ahanotu.

Tobin: At this point, you're looking for people who can make your depth better. Not just out there free agents, but also guys on the waiver wire. There are only three teams ahead of us who can get players before us by claiming them, so it makes sense for us to use that to our advantage because there is little risk.

Hobson: If they do what you think, it looks like they keep eight. So that last spot is coming down to three guys who have been here at least three years in Steele, Langford and Wilson.

Lippincott: The guy you look at there is Steele because he can play both inside and outside. The only other guy who can do that for us is Copeland. Once you get two players in a position group inactive on Sunday, you've got one too many on your team. **

LINEBACKERS**

Locks: OLBs Takeo Spikes, Steve Foley, Canute Curtis, Armegis Spearman, MLBs Brian Simmons, Adrian Ross. Looking Good: OLB Riall Johnson. Practice squad potential: Chris Edmonds, Kamal Shakir, Duke Pettijohn, Rashad Harris, Dave Puloka.

Hobson: You figure they keep seven here with the sixth-round pick Riall Johnson? **

Lippincott:** You could go with just six, but probably not because of special teams and you go with seven. Linebacker is the only spot where it looks like it's going to be one of the only spots where a veteran who has contributed at some point doesn't look to be fighting for a spot right now. It looks like all our guys who have been here won't have a problem, but you have to see what some of the college kids do.

Tobin: You have to have some speed if you're going to be a backup. You can't keep around linebackers just because they're savy around the line of scrimmage. In my mind, you'd rather keep another safety if it's going to add speed for you in a back-up spot.

DEFENSIVE BACKS:

Locks: CB Rodney Heath, CB Robert Bean, CB Artrell Hawkins, CB Mark Roman. S Cory Hall, S Chris Carter, S Darryl Williams. Looking good but they're still looking: CB Tom Carter, CB Carlton Gray. Veterans Battle Royale: S Tremain Mack and S JoJuan Armour. Practice squad material: CB Kenny Bryant. S Jared Lee, S Gary Thompkins. **

Hobson:** Has anybody stepped up at corner? Cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle says no clear-cut starter has emerged.

Brown: I'm still waiting for someone to jump out. I don't know if we have exactly what we're looking for yet. Everyone knows we still need that shutdown guy. But I think we're better there. They've got another year of experience under their belts at that spot. **

Lippincott:** Our cornerbacks look quicker and they're challenging more than they have in the past.

Tobin: It's a more competitive situation than the last couple of years. Every guy going out to the practice field thinks he's the starter and that's healthy. You look around the league and there are a lot of corners who don't like to be physical and make tackles. Yet we have guys that do and I would rank them very high in doing it. Roman, Bean, Artrell, Rodney. These guys are physical players and that has value. **

Hobson:Is Artrell Hawkins undergoing a revival under LeBeau and the move to two secondary coaches?

Lippincott:*I would make Artrell and Mark Roman the starters right now. *

Hobson:** There has been some concern that Roman can only play safety.

Lippincott: There was some talk about that, maybe after that last game. It looked to me like he was slow, but I don't think his heart was in the game. He doesn't move like a safety. He moves like a corner. It seems to me he came back lighter, faster, sleeker.

Hobson: Can any of them play the ball better than they did last year?

Lippincott: You've got to wait for 22-man football and for the lights to come on to find out about that. I've heard people around here say they'd hate to go to war without Tom Carter and, if you look at it, we won four games last year and he saved two of them with big interceptions. He's our best guy at playing the ball.

Hobson: Usually you keep six corners and four safeties. With the Gray signing, you've got six veteran corners, but you've made it clear that won't preclude you from bringing in at least one other veteran corner.

Tobin: It depends who it is. We have been talking to some guys for awhile, and maybe they're ready to sign with money and spots running out.

Hobson: What about safety? There have been worries about lack of speed, which appears to be one of the reasons Carter was moved ahead of Williams at free safety.

Tobin: We could use a guy with speed. We think we've got a guy in (NFL Europe) who gives us some. If (Armour) stays healthy, he can help us.

Lippincott: I'm not sure Darryl won't be back starting at training camp. If you go with five corners and five safeties, that fifth safety has to be able to play corner, too, and I just don't see that happening because we've got too many teams in our division that use four receivers.

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