CINCINNATI (AP) – Bengals middle linebacker Odell Thurman was suspended Wednesday for the first four games of the season because he violated the NFL’s substance abuse policy, the latest blow to a team already stung by player arrests.

Four others have been arrested in separate incidents during the last two months, focusing attention on Cincinnati’s willingness to draft players with troubled pasts.

The latest transgression will cost the Bengals one of their top playmakers on defense. Thurman, a second-round draft pick out of Georgia last year, led the team in tackles and had five interceptions as a rookie.

“I’m very disappointed,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “It’s something that he needs to get in line in his life and get himself back ready to play football.”

Outside linebacker Brian Simmons will move to the middle spot during training camp, which opens this weekend at Georgetown College in Kentucky. Thurman is eligible to work out and play in the preseason games, but Lewis hasn’t decided if he will do so.

The Bengals will be leaning more heavily on the defense at the start of the season. Cincinnati is unsure whether quarterback Carson Palmer, making a comeback from reconstructive knee surgery, will be ready for the opener Sept. 10 at Kansas City.

Knowing that Thurman could be suspended, the Bengals took linebacker Ahmad Brooks in the supplemental draft earlier this month, drawing attention to the way they make draft picks. Brooks played at Virginia for three seasons, but was kicked off the team after last season.

Rather than criticize the four arrested players at a preseason media luncheon on Wednesday, Lewis and owner Mike Brown stressed that none of the cases has gone to trial yet.

“There’s no question we’ve had a bad run of events this spring,” Lewis said. “These allegations have been embarrassing both to the players, our organization, and no question to our fans. And I apologize to them for that.

“However, these things still do remain allegations. At this point, not any of them have been adjudicated.”

Three of the four arrested players were high draft picks with either criminal records or a history of problems with their college coaches.

Second-year receiver Chris Henry has been arrested four times since last December, most recently on charges that he provided alcohol to minors. He is scheduled for trial Aug. 21 in Florida on a charge of carrying a concealed weapon.

Henry was ejected, benched and suspended at West Virginia, problems that prompted him to slip to the third round of the draft. The Bengals were aware of the troubles when they took him.

Linebacker A.J. Nicholson, a fifth-round pick in April, was charged last month with burglarizing the apartment of a former Florida State teammate. Also last month, third-round pick Frostee Rucker was charged with two counts of spousal battery and vandalism in Los Angeles. Both had incidents before the draft.

The most recent arrest came last weekend, when third-year defensive tackle Matthias Askew was subdued with a Taser after Cincinnati police alleged he refused to move an illegally parked vehicle and refused to show identification.

Brown avoided directly answering a question about whether the Bengals would be more cautious in the future about drafting players with trouble in their past.

“I would phrase it differently,” Brown said. “We have 85 guys on this football team (heading into camp). I think we have good people. We have very few who have been a problem of any sort, but they’ve gotten a thunderous amount of publicity. Whether their problems are all that we’ve heard remains to be seen.”

The arrests and Thurman’s suspension overshadow the start of one of Cincinnati’s most promising seasons since the 1980s, when the Bengals made their two Super Bowl appearances.

Palmer led the Bengals to their first winning record since 1990 last year, but tore up his knee in a playoff loss to Pittsburgh. Lewis thinks Palmer can be ready to play the season opener if there are no setbacks in training camp.

“He was doing things in the middle of June that we hoped he’d be doing in the middle of August,” Lewis said.

Brown announced on Wednesday that all of the preseason and regular season home games are sold out, the first time that’s happened in Paul Brown Stadium’s seven years.

The arrests and the suspension have given them pause.

“Sure, it bothers me,” Brown said. “It reflects poorly on the team, and we don’t like that. But again, the whole story isn’t out.”

AP-ES-07-26-06 1702EDT

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