A saintly offer and devil's advocate

4-19-01, 4:05 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Yes, the Bengals will listen to a trade offer if one surfaces when they pick fourth in Saturday's first round of the NFL Draft.

They always listen. And they listened long and hard back in 1999 when New Orleans offered its entire draft (picks in rounds one, three, four, five, six and seven) and the Saints' first- and-third round picks in 2000 for just the Bengals' first-round pick (third overall) in that 1999 draft.

But Bengals President Mike Brown held on to the pick and took Oregon quarterback Akili Smith.

Smith for eight players.

The rest, the Bengals hope, is not history.

Smith has won just three of 15 starts, finished last in AFC passing last year, got benched, and is currently on trial for a suspicion of DUI.

Smith for eight players.

One-sided? For sure.

But there's always two sides.

"If Akili pans out and we still think he can," Brown said, "I'd rather have him than all those other guys."

Most of those eight guys are exactly that. Guys. Some guys who aren't even in the league now. One of them ended last season starting. If you look at the eight names, there are more D'Wayne Bates than Chris Samuels.

Brown gets bashed for turning down the trade every time Smith fumbles in the pocket. But the Bengals wanted an impact player. A difference maker.

And they didn't see one starting with the 12th pick in the first round of 1999.

Yes, the Bengals might have been able to take the Saints' deal

and trade back up from No. 12 to get Smith and still have more picks.

But they weren't sure they could. And if they did make the trade with the idea of taking UCLA quarterback Cade McNown at No. 12, they feared someone might leap ahead of them and they would be left with no quarterback.

And, yes, the Bengals could have ended up with the second overall pick in the 2000 draft and made left tackle Rod Jones a footnote by selecting Chris Samuels or solved their pass-rushing needs with LaVar Arrington. P>Whatever, they could have re-invented their team with the second and fourth picks.

But who knew where the Saints, invigorated by running back Ricky Williams, would finish in '99?

You've got to think if it was known one of those picks would be second in the 2000 draft, the trade would have been snapped up long before New Orleans made the offer to the Bengals.

"I know this," Brown said. "We weren't the only team that didn't take the trade."

But they are the only team that turned down New Orleans and has since been saddled with poor play from the draft choice they held for dear life.

Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, the second pick, and Colts running back Edgerrin James, the fourth pick, have become the heart of playoff teams. The jury is still out on Browns quarterback Tim Couch at No. 1, but he's been far more productive than Smith.

Still, the question has to be asked. Would the eight guys the Bengals received instead of Smith revived the club?

They wouldn't have taken the players the Redskins and Bears eventually split that day after another trade. But they would have been the same value.

"I wouldn't have done that trade then and I wouldn't have done it now," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of pro/college personnel. "There was no second-rounder, and the picks weren't high enough."

Meet the devil's advocate in draft guru Jerry Jones, the former Cincinnati pharmacist who publishes a draft rating book known as "The Drugstore List."

"They needed bodies, that's how you have to look at it," Jones said. "They basically would have had two picks in each round and that would have allowed them to do some things."

Still, the track record isn't overwhelming of most of the players taken in those rounds for a team looking to turn the corner.

At No. 12, the Bears took McNown and he's been as big as disappointment as Smith. The Bears then took Bates in the third round and he's also been an underachiever with six catches for 61 yards in two catches as he perplexes coaches with talent that is unable to bust out of a backup role.

Khari Samuel, a linebacker, is the fifth-round pick and a guy who has been decent on special teams and in a backup role for the Bears. Samuel took some heat last season when he replaced Brian Urlacher for one play and the Vikings turned his mistake into Robert Smith's long touchdown run.

The Bengals think they've got a guy who is better in a similar role in Adrian Ross, a college free agent from '98.

The Redskins kept the fourth-round pick, but ended up cutting Georgia Tech linebacker Nate Stimson, a player who didn't report to camp this past year.

Denver ended up with the sixth- and seventh-round picks and those players are still Broncos. Tight end Desmond Clark has turned into a solid player. Last year he had 27 catches for 339 yards and three touchdowns. They've deemed Billy Miller not fast enough to be a wide receiver and are going to try and develop him into a tight end after he spent much of this past season on the inactive list.

And then in the 2000 draft, the Redskins used their picks from the Saints to choose Arrington at No. 2 and cornerback Lloyd Harrison in the third round. Arrington/Samuels is a stud, while Harrison had trouble getting on the field.

Of course, you could look at who was there when those guys were chosen. In the third round in '99, the Steelers took one of their top sackers at No. 73 in linebacker Joey Porter two picks after Bates was picked and kicker Martin Gramatica went No. 80.

But then again, tackle Kris Farris bombed at No. 74, quarterback Brock Huard at No. 77 was recently released, and center Grey Ruegamer at No. 72 is working on his third club.

And in the fourth rounds, at least the picks from 111-114 are out of the league.

But, as Jones argues, you can find players. In the seventh round of '99, the Steelers plucked their kicker for the next decade in Kris Brown.

Bad move?

The Bengals say they were and are looking for impact players in a game of impact. Critics like Jones say the best and quickest way to turn around a team is to stockpile picks.

Good move?

"It's all going to come down to Akili," Brown said. "If he works out, then it was the right thing."

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