BY GEOFF HOBSON
The consensus is the Bengals made a mistake taking Florida State sack artist Reinard Wilson with the 14th pick in the 1997 NFL Draft because he wasn't athletic or versatile enough to play outside linebacker.
But after 3.5 seasons, 13 career sacks, and his first career game deactivation last Sunday, the 260-pound Wilson insists he's big enough and quick enough to be a factor on the edge as a pass rusher.
"I think I'm big enough. Look at Mike McCrary (Ravens), Jason Taylor (Dolphins), Kenny Holmes (Titans), Jevon Kearse (Titans)," said Wilson of some the AFC sack stars.
"It depends what team you're on, really. "I came into training camp at 270, but I'm about 260 now. Those guys aren't more than 260 pounds. I think I'm just as quick. But if you're not on the field, you can't make any plays."
The Bengals are still looking for production. Still, Wilson did see Sunday's move coming.
After a month of splitting passing downs with linebacker Adrian Ross at right end, Wilson found himself getting about 10 snaps a game during his first season making the transition from linebacker to defensive end.
But Wilson went to great lengths Monday to say he wants no controversy, no arguments, and doesn't want it to get into the newspapers. Wilson says he wants to finish the year out, "Doing my job, getting to work on time."
But the man who had 33.5 college sacks would like to play more.
"I don't think they've given me a chance to fit," said Wilson about trying to get into a groove. "It's a lot different than getting 40 plays like other guys get. You get eight to 12 plays, there's a big difference. You can't get into the game. People assume that you're not doing anything on the field. Really, you have to be on the field to do something.
"You make the player look bad," Wilson said. "He's not really getting an opportunity like the other guys and that's the main concern about it."
When he was drafted, Wilson was supposed to be the centerpiece of the zone-blitz scheme that was getting transplanted from the Super Bowl Steelers with the return of then defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
Maybe that didn't do Wilson any favors, either, with Cincinnati expecting the next Greg Lloyd, or Levon Kirkland, or Chad Brown.
But by Wilson's second year, the coaches felt Ross, a college free agent rookie, was outplaying a guy who teamed with Ravens' defensive end Peter Boulware to form the nation's most dangerous sack duo at Florida State.
"I felt Reinard was too stiff to play linebacker. He struggled in space," said Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham. "He didn't have any flexibility with his knees or change of direction. In college, he had a great defensive football team around him and his one assignment was to line up wide and run right to the quarterback.
"How many NFL tackles did he play against in the ACC?" Lapham asked. "Maybe one. Now he's going against guys who are big enough to handle his strength, but quick enough to get out there and block him. He just hasn't made the adjustment. But I still think he could help this team rushing the passer."
Wilson may have got on the bad side of his teammates almost right away as a rookie when a printed boast about the ease of hitting his 10-sack incentive made the locker room wall.
But people like Bengals General Manager Mike Brown wonder at times how effective a pass rusher with Wilson's size and speed would be if he played on a team that had a lead much of the time.
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The Bengals sat Wilson down Sunday to get a better look at third-year players Ross and Canute Curtis at Wilson's spot. Wilson and Curtis each have one sack this season and Ross is still waiting.
Wilson thinks the rotation indicates, "I guess they thought they gave me my opportunity a few years ago."
Wilson has another year left on his five-year, $6 million rookie deal. Because he's got just one year left, the Bengals would have to absorb the pro-rated portion of his $2.75 million in the 2001-salary cap if they release him at any time. That counts $550,000. He's making $770,00 this year and $880,000. Which isn't deadly, but is steep for 10 snaps a game.
Ironically, Wilson will probably be active this week because Ross (a very sore sprained ankle) and Curtis (chipped bone in his hand) are questionable after getting hurt in the first half Sunday. With all three players out at that rush end spot, defensive line coach Tim Krumrie had to tutor defensive end Vaughn Booker during the game.
LeBeau, now the head coach, downplayed the move by saying the Bengals were trying to find room to activate defensive tackle Tom Baronet after he missed the last two games.
"(Health) goes a lot times as the final complement of the roster," LeBeau said. "Who we're playing, who's nicked up that week and we had a depth problem we thought would be better served going the way we did. As luck would have it, we ended up losing two of our pass rushers in the game. . ., so I wish we would have had Reinard."