Weathersby convinces Bengals

Updated:
4-27-03, 11 a.m.

Updated: 4-27-03, 2:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Oregon State cornerback Dennis Weathersby, shot in the back Easter Sunday in his hometown of Duarte, Calif., has made enough of a recovery for the Bengals to take with the first pick in the fourth round Sunday.

The Bengals began the last day of the NFL Draft with their first defensive pick of the weekend, tapping the 6-1, 204-pound Weathersby despite the shooting. He didn't require surgery and the major question facing the club was his loss of blood.

He fits the big cornerback profile defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier seeks, along with the ability to run. He ran 4.38 seconds at the scouting combine, and although he had just one interception last year, he was named All Pac 10 and started all four years.

He said he lost half his blood, but he is out of the hospital and resting at home. He's looking at a two-month recovery, but should be ready for training camp.

"We checked it out medically as well as the criminal element and are satisfied," Frazier said.

Weathersby has never been arrested and police are theorizing he was the victim of gang violence.

The Bengals used their second pick in the fourth round to take Western Kentucky fullback Jeremi Johnson. In the fifth round, they took Mars Hill outside linebacker Khalid Abdullah.

Weathersby probably would have gone in at least the second round if not for the incident and some, such as ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr., had him projected as a first-rounder.

He is the third potential first-rounder to fall to the Bengals this weekend. It began Saturday when the Bengals grabbed versatile Iowa offensive lineman Eric Steinbach at the top of the second round and then continued with Tennessee wide receiver Kelley Washington in the third round.

Lewis spoke with Weathersby for 20 minutes after the third round Saturday night and again Sunday morning before the draft resumed. Frazier spoke with him several times Saturday and Sunday.

Even the day before he got shot, secondary coach Kevin Coyle spent time with him on the phone as the Bengals anticipated maybe taking him with the 33rd pick at the top of the second round.

Because of their many ties to Oregon State, the Bengals had already been spending the previous weeks checking out Weathersby and they had been pleased. Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has worked with former Oregon State head coach Dennis Erickson, and wide receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson played with him.

They heard about a guy who was a National Honor Society student in high school, just the fourth player in Pac-10 history to be All-Academic four years, and a guy who got his degree in December in liberal studies. On Sunday, Erickson went on ESPN and said Weathersby had never been in trouble and that the Bengals were lucky to have him.

"He's not a gang guy or anything like that. We're 100 percent sure of that," Lewis said. "He graduated from college, he's been an honor student in college. He's been an honor student in high school. He was a freshman starter at Oregon State. He's a guy that's played a lot. So, we don't want to read into that because he may be different than some people in his upbringing and that's what we've been able to research."

According to one his agents, Steve Caric, the bullet went through his back, underneath his lung, out his torso, and entered his left arm between the bicep and elbow. He'll get the bullet removed Tuesday in what Caric calls a procedure as routine as taking off a mole.

One of the reasons Lewis felt comfortable taking Weathersby is that he can't be here in May anyway because Oregon State graduates June 15. The doctors say he'll be cleared for full contact in six to eight weeks, which makes him a possibility for the June mandatory minicamp. He can start his rehab in about 10 days.

The Bengals offensive line underwent a major facelift Saturday when Steinbach fell out of the first round and into the teeth of Lewis' rebuilding program with the first pick of the second round.

Steinbach, an athletic All-American left guard and the highest rated interior lineman on most boards in the 2003 NFL Draft, could be the Bengals' center of the future. Or the guard of the future. The Bengals won't decide where to put him at next weekend's minicamp until after the draft.

But a few things are certain. The reigning Big 10 Offensive Lineman of the year is going to be playing somewhere.

And soon. Not to mention joining Victor Leyva at backup tackle, a flair the 6-6, 297-pound Steinbach showed off at the Senior Bowl to end a college career that began as a tight end.

When offensive line coach Paul Alexander asked if Steinbach could be penciled in as a starter at center or guard, he gave the same answer he did last year when left tackle Levi Jones was taken in the first round and ended up starting 12 games.

"I don't think there's any question he's going to start at some point," Alexander said. "We'll speed it along as fast as we can. It's like I said with Levi, it's up to him to determine how fast he starts. When he shows he can do it, he'll be in there."

Steinbach, a self-described "tough, competitive" kid from the Chicago area (New Lenox, Ill.,) who played for a high school team that won 50 straight games, is looking to start right away after helping the Hawkeyes roll up more than 400 yards per game.

"Yeah, definitely. That's the goal I'm taking into this," Steinbach said. "I want to make an impact right away in the NFL, and I'm going to go into camp fighting for a starting job.

"I've played guard the last four years in college, that's probably my most comfort zone position," Steinbach said. "But I played center my sophomore year in college (in spring ball) and played tackle at the Senior Bowl, so it's up to the coaches."

While Steinbach and a group of 150 relatives and friends gathered at Chicago's ESPN Zone at what was first a vigil and then a party, the Bengals resisted some trade

offers that would have yanked them from the top of the second round into the late first round. They also spurned some offers to trade back into the second round. Reports out of Miami said the Dolphins were one of the teams that called Cincinnati looking to move up and get to the top of the second round.

"The guys that we had targeted had left the board in the early twenties, and we didn't get an offer to move up that far,," Lewis said. "We got offers to move up behind that which would have kept us from getting our targeted players anyway. We also got offers to move back beyond 33, but we wanted to make sure we could select the next group of three players, so that we didn't pull back too far."

Lewis wouldn't say which players fell off the board, but the Bengals could have used a speed receiver in Penn State's Bryant Johnson (No. 17 to Arizona), a center in Notre Dame's Jeff Faine (No. 21 to Cleveland), and a defensive tackle in Miami's William Joseph (No. 25 to the Giants).

But apparently, the Bengals saw enough good players still on the board after the Bills shocked the world and took Miami running back Willis McGahee at No. 23 that they figured someone good would get to them. Besides Steinbach, other projected first rounders sliding to the bottom of the round were Joseph, Texas A&M cornerback Sammy Davis, and Oklahoma cornerback Andre Woolfolk.

While his people huddled around him sympathetically as each selection passed, Steinbach knew why he was sliding. Here's a guy who was ranked No. 12 in the entire draft on the board of ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr.

Here were the Bengals, who never dreamed they would have a chance at him, inserting him on their list and into their discussions just an hour before the pick.

"There were nine defensive linemen in the first (18 picks)," Steinbach said. "I could see it happening. So many surprise picks. I thought (he would go) from the 10th to the 20th pick. That's fine with me. I'm very excited to be part of the Cincinnati organization."

Brave words for a guy who thought he was a first-rounder for sure, but no one bothered him during an ordeal that got a happy ending. "Everybody went nuts," he said.

"Most people thought I was going top 20, and after that didn't happen, all the people starting looking at me," Steinbach said. "The support I had made everything work out great. They knew everything happens for a reason and there's a reason Cincinnati choose me, so I'm taking the same approach and I'm very happy."

The Bengals are getting a guy who comes out of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz's offensive line factory. Fererntz, a former offensive line coach for the Browns and Ravens, sent tight end Dallas Clark to the NFL in the first round, Steinbach at No. 33, and center Bruce Nelson at No. 50.

"He came in here four years ago and turned the program around in four short years," Steinbach said. " He's a well respected O-line coach in the NFL. When he came to Iowa, people listened to what he had to say. I was told by every NFL team that talked to me before the draft, that I'm spoiled being an offensive lineman coming out of the University of Iowa because of the way he teaches and the knowledge he has of the game."

Lewis and Alexander wouldn't say if the Steinbach selection ends their search for a veteran center. But it probably means Rich Braham, the starter for the past four years, isn't coming back and it could mean they don't make a move with Titans free agent Gennaro DiNapoli.

The Bengals have said their goal is to get younger and more athletic inside, where they have left guard Matt O'Dwyer, 31 on Opening Day, and right guard Mike Goff, 27.

Goff, another Illinois product (Peru) who played at Iowa, is young enough to hook up with Steinbach for dinner when ever he goes back to campus to visit. Goff is another potential center candidate, but Steinbach isn't worried about the competition. He's glad Goff is here.

"I have a mentor and a veteran who has played in this league for a couple of years," Steinbach said. "He's going to take the time and sit down and tell me what it takes to play in this league. He will let me know what to expect."

Alexander got what he wants. A big, tough guy.

I won't sacrifice those traits for athleticism," Alexander said. "Now here's a guy who has those traits that happens to be very athletic which is why he's a high pick. You're not going to get a guy like this in the third round."

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