Chargers Add Pair of Players : Besides Malone, CFL Cornerback Bennett Is Signed

Times Staff Writer

Hours after the Chargers officially confirmed the signing of Pittsburgh quarterback Mark Malone Tuesday, they titillated imaginations by calling a news conference to announce the signing of "a significant player from the Canadian Football League."

That player turned out to be a 26-year-old cornerback named Roy Bennett of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Bennett led the CFL in interceptions last year with 13. That's pretty significant.

But he also managed to dodge the NFL draft in 1984 after he graduated from Jackson State. The Dallas Cowboys signed him as a free agent and cut him. Then the USFL's Jacksonville Bulls cut him.

That's ugly significant.

Bennett is 6-feet 2-inches tall and weighs 192 pounds and is big enough to play safety. But Steve Ortmayer, Charger director of operations, says the team will use Bennett exclusively at cornerback.

Bennett was even more specific than that. "I'd like to play the left corner if possible," he said. "That's the side I've grown accustomed to."

The Chargers' starting left cornerback at the end of last season was Elvis (Toast) Patterson.

Ortmayer stopped short of conceding Patterson's starting job to Bennett. But, he said, "every player we would bring in, we would hope that he would compete to start."

Bennett became a free agent March 1 and immediately expressed an interest in becoming a Charger. He said the weather in San Diego reminded him of his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla.

His agent, Toronto-based Gil Scott, also pointed out that the CFL has fallen on hard times. Sagging attendance and decreased television revenues have caused that league to institute a salary cap.

All of which helps explain why Scott and Bennett were thrilled by the attention paid him by 13 NFL teams besides the Chargers. Some wanted him as a safety. Others wanted him as a cornerback.

Scott said the Bears and the Broncos were bidding for Bennett as late as this week. And, he said, whether or not Bennett would sign with the Chargers was up in the air "as late as this (Tuesday) morning."

With the NFL draft 11 days away, the Chargers now have, at least partially, shored up an area they have publicly identified as a draft need.

Most of the available cornerbacks in this spring's draft, comparable in size to Bennett, played safety in college. "They are projections (to cornerback)," Ortmayer said.

If Bennett were available in the draft right now, Ortmayer said, "I think he would be a high-round (early) selection."

Ortmayer said one of Bennett's biggest adjustments will be the overall speed superiority of NFL wide receivers compared with those in the CFL. Bennett said he would have to get used to the smaller NFL field. In the CFL the field is 65 yards wide, compared with 53 in the NFL, and the end zones are 25 yards deep, compared with 10 yards in the NFL.

Meanwhile, Charger Coach Al Saunders reiterated what Ortmayer said Monday about the acquisition of Malone.

"I think we all feel like the search for a quarterback to replace a Hall of Famer like Dan Fouts is not over," Saunders said. "But as a coach, you play with the cards that are dealt you."

Fouts, second only to Fran Tarkenton in all-time NFL passing yardage, retired last month.

Saunders said the Chargers will conduct a quarterback school for the players they have under contract beginning May 1. He said it will last a month.

"They're all coming in with a clean slate," he said.

He may need a week to sort out their names. Three of them--Malone, Herrmann and Vlasic--answer to Mark. The fourth is Mike Kelley.

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