Akili waits for June 1

5-21-03, 5:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Akili Smith, once the Bengals quarterback of the future, should know in 10 days if he has another year left in Cincinnati.

Smith may have thrown only three touchdown passes in his last 382 attempts. Or not led a touchdown drive since 2001. Or not started back-to-back games since 2000. But he's not stupid. He knows whether the Bengals cut him or not comes down to this.

"Can Carson (Palmer) handle No. 2? That's what it boils down to," Smith said of the NFL's No. 1 draft pick. "Can (Jon) Kitna stay healthy and play well all year and can Carson back up? If that's the case, then I'm expendable. But the thing is, it's cheaper if they keep me because I'm making minimum. It's a business, man. It's the NFL and it's a big business."

Palmer worked at No. 2 Wednesday as Smith recovers from a strained hip flexor. He said he'll be ready for the June 9-11 mandatory minicamp, but will Smith be a Bengal then?

They would save about $530,000 on this year's salary cap if they release Smith after June 1 as they grapple with having two top three quarterbacks on the roster. Smith is to count $2.3 million against the cap, but if he is waived in June, that number would reduce to $1.8 million and jump to $3 million in '04.

Smith is right. He is scheduled to make just $530,000 in salary. But, the Bengals also have a variety of options:

Or, could Smith be competing with veteran free-agent quarterbacks such as Ray Lucas, Shane Matthews, Cade McNown, Jamie Martin, and Kent Graham? Part of the Bengals' decision may be whom they would rather have if Kitna goes down before Palmer is ready. That veteran would probably also be a minimum guy. But the Bengals saw how difficult it was to force feed the offense to even a veteran like Gus Frerotte last year, and he signed a month earlier. Plus, Palmer is saying he's got two extra coaches because Kitna and Smith and are versed enough in the offense to correct him.

"I'm definitely a long way away," said Palmer Wednesday of grasping the system.

A few things are clear. Kennard McGuire, Smith's agent, said he has been told only that Smith is going to get a fair shot to win the No. 2 job. June 1 hasn't been discussed. Lewis doesn't want to touch the question with a 10-foot zone blitz ("No comments on Akili"), which would indicate a decision hasn't been made. And, Smith thinks his experience in the offense gives him the edge over Palmer and anyone else they might bring in.

"I'm not too much worried about Carson Palmer. He's got a lot to learn," Smith said after Wednesday's practice. "As far as I'm concerned, the guy I'm going against is Jon Kitna because he's the No. 1 guy."

But Smith has high regard for the physical talent Palmer brings to the table, and predicts he'll have a successful run in Cincinnati.

"I don't mean to say that (David) Klingler and I were test dummies to get it right with Palmer," said Smith with a smile. "But he's in a great situation here with what Marvin has got going on and the way (quarterbacks coach Ken) Zampese is coaching. He's got all the physical skills and the intangibles. You can see that. He'll do well."

But Smith also believes in himself. He knows he wasn't the third pick in the 1999 draft for nothing, and he feels like he's earned a shot elsewhere if not here. He certainly has helped himself by saying all the right things and his attention to practice and meetings. Which weren't always the case for the first two years of his career, when he dug himself into a hole with teammates and coaches.

"Some of it was my fault, some of it wasn't," Smith said.

McGuire has told him to expect interest from teams if he gets released, and Smith admits it's "torture," not having a clue which way the club is going to go. He just hopes the Bengals do it early enough so he can catch on in a good situation. He remembers what a coach told him after he got benched last season following his only start of 2002, a 12-for-33 effort and a 34.5 passer rating against Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay.

"He said, 'For whatever it's worth, Mike Brown likes you a lot.' That's good to know," Smith said. "Mike and I have a very good relationship.

"Marvin has been up-front and honest all the way and I hope they'll continue to be," Smith said. "I know they could could cut me at any time."

For his part, Palmer doesn't know if the Bengals will protect him by putting him at No. 3, but as Smith said, "I've been No. 3 the past two years and I was the third pick in the draft." After Wednesday's practice, Palmer admitted, "I've definitely got aways to go," and he is still doing things like running a play from one system when he hears the word in this system, which means a totally different play.

"Having two years in the offense is a huge advantage. . .They've been in it two years and Jon's been in it before that," Palmer said. "I'm making three or four errors on every play, and calling the plays wrong and just watching how good he is makes me realize how far I have to go."

Palmer is no crash dummy, either. He knows what will decide No. 2 and No. 3: "It depends on my development."

If Smith becomes No. 3, he said he'll send in his agents to talk the club, but he also said, "I'll be thankful I've got a job in the NFL. We'll see what happens."

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