Akili: Look before you leap

2-14-03, 6:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

As the Bengals prepare to descend on next week's scouting combine with the NFL Draft's No. 1 pick, the buzz in the Indianapolis hotel lobbies is no doubt going to involve them selecting USC quarterback Carson Palmer or Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich.

But if they are looking to select a franchise quarterback, Akili Smith advises them they don't have to bother because they've got one already.

Him.

"I'm the same quarterback I was four years ago," said Smith Friday from San Diego. "Put the tape on from Oregon and, my opinion, I had a better senior year than any of the guys coming out this year. To me, that's the decision they have to make. Do they take a quarterback with the first pick and call him, 'The Franchise?' or do they take Akili Smith by the heels and say he's got so much talent that let's put it on the line and see what he's got?"

If they decide Palmer or Leftwich, Smith thinks they go into a much better situation here than when he arrived as the third pick in the 1999 draft.

"It was chaos," Smith said. "But it's much better for them now. They come in where everybody is starting fresh in the right direction."

The Hot Stove League always gets stoked during those cold February nights in Indy and here are just some of the Bengals' logs that are simmering:

The NFL wonders if too much has been said between Lewis and transition free agent linebacker Takeo Spikes for Spikes to return. Lewis has lobbied him hard ever since he got the job a month ago and Spikes still hasn't said anything positive.

That has to rankle a first-year head coach who is known as a defensive guru and has a reputation for finding linebackers and getting them to produce no matter their talent level. How long before Lewis goes and gets another linebacker who buys into his program for half the price?

Early line on the teams pursuing Spikes? Buffalo, New Orleans, and watch out for Miami if the left tackles dry up as the Dolphins could seek an outside threat for Zach Thomas.

The combine marks Lewis' league-wide debut on the scene as a head coach and he'll meet the national media late in the week. He'll probably also be asked to explain his closed-practice philosophy.

But next week's main interest is centered on quarterback. Smith has spoken with Lewis and new quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and is encouraged by the talks. He's thrilled Zampese is talking about getting back-to-basics mechanically ("I got away from that the last couple of years") and took note when Lewis told him he would do better if he went with his pre-snap reads.

"If I get the reps, I can get that down," said Smith, who has made two starts in the last two years. "I can go through the playbook right now with Marvin, but the problem is I haven't had the reps in two years. I pretty much was the scapegoat for (4-12 in 2000). But if they choose to go with one of those young guys, he'll be in a better situation than I was. There is more experienced talent around.

"And Mike Brown is showing people he is turning this thing around in the right direction," Smith said. "You can tell by just talking to Marvin that it's going to be different. It's a great move."

Smith figures if the Bengals take a quarterback in the first round, he'll be cut after June 1. If not. . .

If it's anything other than a first-rounder, I'll be a Bengal," said Smith, who agrees with Lewis that Jon Kitna deserves to be No. 1. "If it is, I just wish I'd get cut earlier so I could get with the new team and get the playbook. If not, and I'm the backup, I'll be happy getting a fresh start and I'll be ready."

But as the Bengals step up the scouting process, Smith hopes they keep in mind they still have the third pick from five drafts ago.

"I'll take what I did in my senior year and put it up against anybody's," Smith said. "A guy like (Palmer) had more around him than I did. It wasn't that long ago. I still think I can start in this league."

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