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Versatility counts with linebackers


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By Kevin Goheen

Post staff reporter

Editor's note: The NFL's 32 teams have two more weeks to review game film and scouting reports on this year's crop of incoming college players before the league's annual draft. The Bengals addressed major offensive needs by re-signing running back Rudi Johnson and wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh this offseason, meaning the draft could take on a distinctive defensive flavor for a second straight year. Leading up to the draft on April 23 The Post will analyze the three defensive position groups, where the Bengals stand with them right now and who might be available to them in the draft. April 2: defensive backs; Today: linebackers; April 16: defensive line.

You'd better be able to run, stay on your feet and you'd better be able to tackle.

That's what Bengals coaches are looking for in any of their defensive players, but it acutely targets the attributes they want to see in their linebackers. That's why they didn't blink an eye at critics after drafting Caleb Miller and Landon Johnson in the third round of last year's draft and why undrafted free agent Larry Stevens was signed from the practice squad in the middle of the season and stuck with the team the rest of the way.

The Bengals have begun their offseason condition program with veterans Brian Simmons and Kevin Hardy leading a group that is otherwise young, talented and still learning what it means to play in the NFL. Johnson and Miller received valuable experience last season, but as this week's visit by free agent Jamie Sharper proves, the Bengals won't be afraid to bring in more talent in an effort to upgrade a defense that finished last season ranked No. 19 in the league.

"That's the business," said Hardy, who signed with the Bengals in 2003 and is getting ready for his 10th NFL season. "Professional athletics is based on competition and management of the team is always trying to better the team. That's the way to do, so that's part of it. Guys who have been around for a while, we realize that. You deal with it and move on."

Hardy's name has come up in reports as a possible salary cap casualty, but that seems unlikely at this point considering the makeup of Cincinnati's roster. Not only is it full of young linebackers but it gets younger with the continued absence of Nate Webster. Webster was signed to play middle linebacker last season, but that lasted just three games before he tore a patellar tendon in his right knee. He re-injured the knee while rehabbing in December and isn't expected to be back out on the field until August at the earliest.

So whether or not Sharper is brought into the fold, the Bengals will have linebackers on the mind in two weeks when the NFL holds its annual draft.

"We're going to keep emphasizing staying on your feet and making tackles," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "It's finding players that do that. Not can do that but do that. They do that or they go elsewhere."

Texas' Derrick Johnson is the top-rated linebacker in the draft and should be selected well before the Bengals' turn comes up with the No. 17 overall pick. DeMarcus Ware of Troy State, Darryl Blackstock of Virginia and Tennessee's Kevin Burnett should be available with that pick, but that spot may be a bit high for them to be taken. If the Bengals like any of those players and feel they'll still be available later in the round, don't be surprised if the team trades down a few spots.

The Bengals, as evidenced by picking Landon Johnson and Miller where they did last year, don't have to look solely at the first round to pick up quality. Georgia's Odell Thurman, Louisville's Robert McCune and South Carolina's Marcus Lawrence are possible second- and third-round candidates.

Versatility is a key to any linebacker the Bengals bring in. The player will need to have the ability to play inside or outside in the defense's 4-3 alignment.

Simmons began his career playing inside before Lewis moved him outside two seasons ago. Hardy has played in the middle and outside. Johnson never played in the middle in college but performed well enough in Webster's absence last season to lead the Bengals in tackles with 133. Miller, although he's listed at only 225 pounds, was a middle linebacker in college at Arkansas and played both spots last season. An ankle injury slowed him most of last season but he is fully recovered.

Versatility appears to be a strength in this year's draft class. More so than in years past there seems to be an influx of players who used to be termed as 'tweeners - those who didn't fit the prototypical mold of one position but who can be used in various roles.

Antwan Peek, formerly of the University of Cincinnati and now with the Houston Texans, is a classic 'tweener and the Bearcats have a pair of prospects in this draft who fit the same description in Trent Cole and Andre Frazier. Either could play linebacker or as a defensive end, depending on what team drafts them and what defensive scheme it runs.

The Bearcats have two other linebackers in Jamar Enzor and Tyjuan Haglar who have shown well in pre-draft workouts and have a shot at being a second-day draft choice.


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The contenders

Here's a list of returning linebackers for the Bengals and some

who will be eligible for the NFL Draft on April 23, including what

round(s) they are expected to be selected.


Player Year

Kevin Hardy* 10

Landon Johnson* 2

Brian Simmons* 8

Khalid Abdullah 3

Allen Augustin 1

Caleb Miller 2

Larry Stevens 2

Nate Webster 6

Marcus Wilkins 4

* - returning starter

Top draft eligible

Player School Rd

Kevin Burnett Tennessee 1-2

Darryl Blackstock Virginia 1-2

Channing Crowder Florida 1-2

Trent Cole Cincinnati 4-5

Jamar Enzor Cincinnati 6-7

Johnathan Goodard Marshall 4-5

Tyjuan Hagler Cincinnati 6

Derrick Johnson Texas 1

Marcus Lawrence S. Carolina 3-4

Robert McCune Louisville 3

Barrett Ruud Nebraska 2-3

Odell Thurman Georgia 2

DeMarcus Ware Troy State 1

Cornelius Wortham Alabama 3-4

* - Note: Round projections from NFLDraftScout.com


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Gimme Kirk Morrison.

He hits the point of attack w/ as much leverage, velocity, and power as any LB I saw last year in college.

I'd like to see the Bengals take him in the 2nd but don't think they will.

Versatility is great but the Bengals need a real MLB to plug the holes left by the DTs, especially vs. the power running game of the AFC North.

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