Thursday, August 31
Talent starting to grow in Cincinnati

The Bengals knew they were going to have to rebuild their offense this season, but the building process has become much more daunting than originally expected.

The Bengals are a very young football team that could pull some upsets because of their promising talent.

Offensively, losing wide receiver Darnay Scott to a season-ending injury was a devastating blow, but getting Corey Dillon into camp will benefit Akili Smith because it will keep him in good down-and-distance situations. They have a balanced offensive attack with the potential to move the ball down the field and score points.

Defensively, they're still young. They were out of position a lot last year. They'll have to do a better job of playing disciplined football and avoiding mistakes because that is what cost them games.

To be a playoff team or win the division isn't a realistic goal, but the Bengals are capable of winning six to eight games.

Quarterback Jeff Blake started 12 games in 1999 and threw for 2,670 yards and 16 touchdowns. But he punched a free-agency ticket to New Orleans and will be replaced by second-year man Akili Smith, who totaled 805 yards, two TDs and four starts.

The top two receivers were Darnay Scott and Carl Pickens, who combined for 125 catches, 1,759 yards and 13 scores. Both are gone. Pickens, long a thorn in the side of management and the coaching staff, was released, and Scott suffered a broken leg early in training camp that ended his season and threatens his career.

First-round draft pick Peter Warrick will take over for Scott, with youthful veterans James Hundon and Craig Yeast and rookie Ron Dugans battling for Pickens' spot.

The Bengals thought they were going to be without running back Corey Dillon, who had vowed to sit out the first 10 regular-season games, but he finally agreed to a one-year deal.

Dillon has had three straight 1,000-yard seasons, but he has fought a kneecap problem and is the only Bengals runner with substantial experience.

The defense, which gave up a club-record 460 points, will also have a new look. There will be at least four new starters and one position change -- all of which will put even more heat on Bruce Coslet, who is 21-36 in three-plusyears as head coach, including 3-13 in '98 and 4-12 in '99.

Quarterbacks: Coslet has walked a fine line with Smith during the preseason, trying to give him plenty of practice work and game time without wearing him down. Smith may not be a rookie, but he's still going to go through rookie-like growing pains.

Scott Mitchell has had a good camp and could be more help than originally expected.
Grade: C

Peter Warrick
Peter Warrick should be a big part of the offense in Cincinnati.
Running backs: Dillon's signing has turned a definite problem area into a plus, provided he's in shape physically, mentally and emotionally. The last two areas are the biggest concerns for the oft-moody tailback. There are no proven runners behind Dillon. Michael Basnight is out with a broken wrist, and FB Nick Williams still has to show he can run as well as block.
Grade: B-

Wide receivers: The Bengals knew all along they wouldn't have Pickens this season, but they were counting on Scott to be a mentor to what has now become the youngest WR corps in the NFL. Warrick is the real deal, but now he must become the featured guy. Hundon and Yeast have good speed but are short on experience and have durability questions. Dugans, who teamed with Warrick at Florida State, could be a factor.

Tony McGee looks like the prototype tight end, but the Bengals couldn't get the ball to him even when Pickens and Scott were spreading defenses.
Grade: C

Offensive linemen: This may be the best group of linemen the Bengals have had in years, although that isn't exactly a ringing endorsement. ORT Willie Anderson is overdue for serious Pro Bowl consideration. OLT Rod Jones isn't in Anderson's class but has made strides in that direction.

Matt O'Dwyer and Brian DeMarco provide some stability at the OG spots, although O'Dwyer will sit out the first two games while serving an NFL-imposed suspension for his part in an altercation outside a New York night spot. Rich Braham is a fixture at center, but his early-season status has been clouded by recent knee surgery. Free-agent OT John Jackson adds 12 years of experience, and Mike Goff is the best of the young backups.
Grade: C+

Defensive linemen: The Bengals are going with a four-man line in their base defense. The pass rush needs to show marked improvement to compensate for a shaky secondary. Defensive end John Copeland's offseason conditioning work seems to have given him the step he's been missing.

Free agents Tom Barndt, a tackle from Kansas City, and Vaughn Booker, an end from Green Bay, are upgrades, but they're still trying to mesh with the holdovers, Copeland and offensive tackle Oliver Gibson. Glen Steele, Jevon Langford, Michael Bankston and Reinard Wilson are the top reserves, although the Bengals' patience is wearing thin with Wilson, a first-round pick in '97 who has done almost nothing.
Grade: C+

Linebackers: Now the Bengals' strongest area -- and it may be for years to come. Brian Simmons takes over in the middle of the new 4-3 alignment and has been making plays all over the field. Takeo Spikes stays outside and will get more chances as a pass rusher.

Steve Foley needs to improve his consistency, but he's not a weak link. Billy Granville, Canute Curtis and Adrian Ross are capable backups.
Grade: B

Defensive backs: There have been a lot of changes from last year, but it's too soon to tell if they were all positive. Free agent Darryl Williams (Seattle) is the new free safety. He's better in pass coverage than run support, and he adds stability to a secondary that has been sadly lacking in that area. Cory Hall started 12 games at free safety as a rookie but is better-suited for strong safety.

Tom Carter, who played only one full game with the Bengals after being claimed from Chicago in December, is set at left corner. Some have questioned his instincts, but on this team he's the most instinctive corner available. Erratic Artrell Hawkins is in his third year as a starter at right corner, but he hasn't made the strides his coaches had hoped he'd make. Rookies Mark Roman and Robert Bean are probably too green to challenge Hawkins right now, but they may get a chance later.
Grade: C-

Special teams
In Tremain Mack, Yeast and Warrick, Cincinnati has three of the NFL's most dangerous return men. Mack made the Pro Bowl last season for his work on kickoffs. Yeast had only 10 opportunities on punts, but he averaged 20.9 yards and returned a pair for touchdowns. Warrick could be equally productive, but he may not get many chances because the Bengals are so thin at receiver. Punt and kickoff coverage used to be flat-out embarrassing, but an influx of speed has improved that area.

Kicker Doug Pelfrey, once the NFL's career leader in field goal accuracy, has slipped considerably and was having a hard time fending off rookie challenger Neil Rackers at presstime. Punter Brad Costello was being pressed almost as hard by Daniel Pope.
Grade: B-

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