Watson lets it play out

4-5-04, 4 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals have a few things to wrap up before they meet as a team for the first time in five weeks at minicamp:

Bracing for anything at No. 17 in the first round, which means a running back just as much as a cornerback. NFL.com reports that Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis attended running back Maurice Clarett's workout at Ohio State Monday. But don't get excited. Cornerback Chris Gamble also worked.

Meanwhile, veteran running back Kenny Watson took a break from his own workout Monday at Paul Brown Stadium, quite confident he is one of the answers.

Fact: Since Nov. 3, 2002, Dillon has one more 100-yard game (three) than Watson. Which is no shot at Dillon because he was injured most of last season. But it illustrates what one AFC scout says about Watson:

"He's a capable back. He's well-rounded. He can catch. You can put him in there for a couple of games and he can do the job for you."

The 5-11, 218-pound Watson has heard the buzz, seen the headlines, and felt the angst of a Dillon move that is going to leave a question mark behind Johnson. But Watson did it before as an undrafted rookie out of Penn State in 2002 and he thinks he can do it again.

Fact: Watson's 4.6 yard per carry average on 116 carries backing up Stephen Davis in Washington in 2002 was longer than Dillon's 3.9 on 138 carries rotating with Rudi Johnson in Cincinnati in 2003.

"No question. I can carry the load," said Watson, who now knows he has to show other people. "That's what the offseason is for. My goal is to always impress the coaches, and now it's preparing for minicamps and training camp so I can show them."

But the guy who knows most about Watson is the guy who matters the most. Watson ran against Lewis' defense every day in practice in Washington.

"I think there's a reason why I'm here," Watson said. "The Lord puts you in a place for a reason. Coach Lewis brought me in for a reason. He knows I can play. I just have to show everybody else I can play."

Chip Morton, the Bengals strength and conditioning coach, also had Watson in Washington and hasn't been surprised by the work ethic.

"He's a by-the-numbers guy. Always on time, hard-worker, a coach's dream," Morton said. "He's got quick feet, he moves well. Just from the uneducated eye when I watched him in Washington, he always got three, four yards no matter what. A plugger and at the end of the day when you'd look up, he had 100 yards."

Which was the word on Johnson before he started playing last season and ended up 43 yards shy of his first 1,000-yard season on basically a two-back team.

Watson started four games in place of Davis and produced two 110-yard games in 2002. After a career he played mostly wide receiver in college for Joe Paterno, Watson also broke a screen pass for a 62-yard touchdown. He backed up Johnson last year and saw him do a little bit of the same thing.

"It's all about getting an opportunity and taking advantage of it," Watson said. "That's what he did last year and that's what I did when Stephen had the unfortunate injury."

Both Davis and Watson ended up elsewhere last year, with Davis helping Carolina get to the Super Bowl and Watson playing special teams for the Bengals after he didn't get claimed when the Redskins cut him just before the season.

That surprised the Redskins, who were actually entertaining thoughts of trying to trade Watson. In the end, he got caught in a numbers game because Washington didn't want to give up on the speed of a very fast college free-agent rookie in Sultan McCullough of USC.

Now he knows he's a factor in a different kind of mix with Dillon and Johnson and how he can be an answer.

"I think about it all the time," Watson said. "But you can't talk about it or worry about it. I just go in the weight room and do my running, and when it's time to play, it's time to play."

What is unknown is if Watson could carry you for 16 games if had to. They may have a shot at one of those guys at No. 17, if a Kevin Jones from Virginia Tech or a Chris Perry from Michigan is still around. It's believed to be too high for Clarett. But would a back come at the expense of getting a first-round corner?

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it depends on signing Walker, who had 86 career starts for Tennessee before being plagued by a concussion in Minnesota last season.

Agent John Hamilton has already spoken with Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and things might pick up a notch later this week when Hamilton comes off the road, but neither side seems on the fast track. Hamilton thought Walker might be ready to make some visits starting Monday.

Gamble, who ran a disappointing 40-yard dash time at his workout last month in the .455-second range, took another shot Monday. According to NFL.com, his times were roughly the same at 4.61, 4.57, and 4.53. Whether the plus-4.4 clockings subdue teams' interest remains to be seen.

Clarett worked out even though his draft status is up in the air, and the reaction seemed mixed. According to NFL.com, he ran three 40s for times of 4.58, 4.62 and 4.63. He also ran the 10 three times for 1.61, 1.64 and 1.65. He added 19 reps on the bench press, a 36½-inch vertical, a 9-5 long jump, a 4.30-second short shuttle and a 7.17-second three-cone drill.

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