Bengals hope Rivers is a linebacker who sticks

GEORGETOWN — Maybe Keith Rivers will stop the streak of Bengal busts.

Maybe Marvin Lewis will catch some good luck for a change with his linebacker choice, his first-rounder, the No. 9 overall pick who finally got the Bat signal from his agent that an agreement had been reached, the holdout was over, and the former Trojan could travel from Cincinnati to Georgetown College and pull on the pads.

“I'm ready to rock and roll,” declared Rivers.

This was Wednesday, after the Bengals' morning practice, their first with No. 58. Truth be told, Rivers did little. But he was here. In uniform. In pads. After a nearly two-week absence, the rookie from Southern Cal was ready to go.

“The expectations for him are high,” said linebackers coach Jim Fitzgerald. “And I really feel like they can be met in a short period of time.”

There were high expectations for David Pollack in 2005. Pollack was the first-rounder out of Georgia, a high-energy college defensive end converted to pro linebacker. Pollack sparkled briefly before a neck injury caved in his career.

There were high expectations for Odell Thurman. He was the Bengals' second-round pick out of Georgia the same year as his college teammate Pollack. Thurman rocked as a rookie, only to hit the personal rocks thereafter. Suspended for 2006 and 2007, Thurman was re-instated, cut, suspended again.

There were high hopes for Kevin Hardy and Landon Johnson and Ahmad Brooks and Caleb Miller, all promising linebackers to play for Lewis in Cincinnati, all without approaching the same success Ray Lewis experienced under Lewis in Baltimore.

This isn't to say Rivers is Ray Lewis. But he's big (6-foot-2, 241 pounds) and fast with highlight capabilities. He's smart, too, having completed his degree at USC in the off-season.

“It's generally true that guys who have already graduated from college when they get to the NFL are more successful here and in life,” said Lewis yesterday. “That's because they've taken care of business on the field and off the field.”

Best of all, the Bengals will ask Rivers to play the same position he played all four years in college, weak-side linebacker.

“There's different terminology,” said Rivers. “But basically it's the same.”

He also said he had been antsy in Cincinnati waiting for his deal to be done, being one of two first-round holdouts — Jacksonville's Derrick Harvey the other.

He said he received text updates from ex-Trojan teammate Frostee Rucker, from fellow rookie Pat Sims, defensive lineman John Thornton, “and Carson (Palmer) hit me up once,” said Rivers.

“I'm bummed I missed out on the bonding time,” he said.

“(Tuesday night) he was just excited to be in camp and with the guys in the room,” said Fitzgerald.

And so is the linebackers coach, a 15-year vet who has never had a first-round linebacker. “Not as a rookie,” he said.

And what of the rookie's replacement? What of Brandon Johnson, the third-year outside backer from Louisville, signed as a free agent after playing two seasons with Arizona. First week, Johnson was a training-camp terror.

“He's doing a great job, as I knew he would,” said Rivers, who worked with Johnson in mini-camps.

“To tell you the truth,” said Johnson on Monday before the rookie's arrival, “I'm tired of being asked about Rivers.”

“I think it's worked out really well for everybody,” countered Fitzgerald. “It's not like Brandon is going on the shelf. The bottom line is, the best three linebackers are going to be on the field, no matter who they are.”

In the past, the ones the Bengals thought might be best didn't work out that way.

Maybe Keith Rivers will change that.