Saturday, November 27, 1999

'99 draft grade: Incomplete


Key rookies injured, but show potential

BY TOM GROESCHEN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Bengals' season has been rough on its 1999 rookie draft class, with four of the top five picks spending much of the year in the trainer's room.

        By now, the Bengals figured No.1 pick Akili Smith would have settled in at quarterback. They hoped No.2 choice Charles Fisher would be well into a long career as a starting cornerback.

DRAFT SYNOPSIS
  The Bengals' 1999 draft synopsis:
  1. Akili Smith, QB — Had 1-3 record as starter. Likely out for year (sprained toe).
  2. Charles Fisher, CB — Began year as starter, suffered season-ending knee injury in first game.
  3. Cory Hall, FS — Became starter in fifth game of season. Has one interception. Bengals like his speed, range.
  4. Craig Yeast, WR — Plagued all year by high ankle sprain. Emerged last Sunday with 86-yard TD on punt return.
  5. Nick Williams, FB — Also restricted by ankle sprain. Has seven rushes for 22 yards, seven receptions for 69 yards.
  6. Kelly Gregg, NT — On practice squad.
  7a. Tony Coats, OL — On practice squad.
  7b. Scott Covington, QB — Appeared in two games, 3-for-4 passing for 19 yards, no TDs or interceptions, 84.4 QB rating.
  7c. Don Broomfield, DE — Waived in preseason.
        Instead, both are probably out for the year. Fisher was lost in the season opener with torn knee ligaments and faces a long rehabilitation. Smith started four games before suffering a severely sprained right toe on Oct. 31, and the Bengals were 1-3 in his starts.

        Ankle sprains have limited the production of receiver Craig Yeast (No.4) and fullback Nick Williams (No.5). Among the top five picks, only free safety Cory Hall (No.3) has become an anchored starter. Bengals President Mike Brown said the team liked what Smith showed at quarterback, despite limited playing time.

        “For a rookie he was ex tremely poised,” Brown said. “He was set back by the (27-day) holdout and now the injury, but we are not disappointed in him. We expect him to be an important player here.”

        Brown is paying Smith an average of $7.5 million over the next eight years, the richest deal in Bengals history.

        Jim Lippincott, the Bengals' director of pro and college personnel, said the team generally likes its '99 draft. High points have included Smith's maturity and leadership qualities, Hall's speed and range at safety, and Yeast's punt return for an 86-yard TD vs. Baltimore last week.

        “You certainly hope for more out of your first two guys, but we haven't gotten that,” Lippincott said. “And that is through no fault of their own.”

        Even with the Bengals' rebuilding situation, the team has played more rookies than it would have liked. But the pressures of winning immediately, plus the long-range specter of free agency, lend greater urgency to getting draftees on the field.

        “Usually you kind of wait and evaluate your draft two or three years down the road,” Lippincott said. “But these days, with free agency the way it is, you're only going to get four years out of some guys. So you'd better get something out of them pretty soon.”

        With the future-is-now approach, figure Smith is the starting quarterback well into the 2000s and Hall the free safety for years to come.

        Expect Yeast to stick around. The Bengals drafted the former Kentucky star for his big-play ability and hope he will be their long-term punt returner and No.3 or No.4 receiver.

        “This last game showed why we picked him,” Brown said. “And he's still not completely over that ankle sprain.”

        Ditto for No.5 pick Williams, who like Yeast has battled a “high ankle” sprain all season. Williams is expected to be the starting fullback next year.

        Beyond that, No.6 pick Kelly Gregg is a nose tackle who has stuck on the practice squad. Of the team's three picks in round seven, Tony Coats is an offensive lineman also on the practice squad, Scott Covington is a backup quarterback, and defensive end Don Broomfield was cut in preseason.

        The wild card in the '99 class could be Covington. With Smith hurt, Covington is the No.2 quarterback behind Jeff Blake. Veteran Eric Kresser, whom the team cut in preseason, returned Nov.4 as the third quarterback.

        Covington has played little this season, completing three of four passes for 19 yards. For what it's worth, his quarterback rating is 84.4, better than Blake's (75.6) or Smith's (55.6).

        “Scott Covington is the best backup quarterback prospect we've had around here for a while,” Brown said. “He's got mobility, arm strength, and he's smart. He just needs the experience.”

       



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