Akili wonders what if

6-5-02, 6:25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Akili Smith admits he thinks about it all the time.

What if he had come into the 2000 season with veteran Darnay Scott, as well as second-year players Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh at wide receiver? What if Richmond Webb had been at left tackle, Lorenzo Neal at fullback, and all of them were working out of offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's system?

"That's the system I know from college and love," Smith mused Wednesday at Paul Brown Stadium. "There's nothing I can do about it. Now I'm just trying to get healthy and figure out what's going on around here."

What's going on is that Smith hasn't regained his starting job since 12 games into a 2000 season he played with a guard as his left tackle, a rookie receiving corps, and a foreign system in the West Coast offense.

Now what's going on is that the Bengals are officially in a two-man, 50-50 snap quarterback derby with Jon Kitna and Gus Frerotte. When he's medically cleared, Smith reiterated Wednesday he wants it to be a three-man derby with a fair shot at becoming the starter for the Sept. 8 opener against San Diego.

Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau is going to wait until Smith gets

cleared before he ventures into that realm. Smith says he needs another month to get enough confidence to burst out of the pocket and run at top speed. Which is what he was doing when he tore 90 percent of his hamstring off the bone last Dec. 16 in the Meadowlands against the Jets.

"Maybe a month away," Smith said. "I think it's more now of getting mentally secure with it. Right now, I still know the injury is there. I haven't moved real fast yet and I won't be back until I can explode out of the pocket."

Bengals trainer Paul Sparling has said Smith is likely to be ready for the first practice of training camp July 26 at Georgetown College, but where that puts Smith in the derby is unclear.

"I think I have a leg up on Frerotte because I know the system better," Smith said. "Kitna has a leg up on me because he's been in it and knowing it since (Kitna was in) Seattle. We'll see what happens."

Smith said Frerotte has a strong arm and he thought Kitna had an excellent May camp with another year in the system under his belt. Which got Smith thinking about 2000 again.

"To his credit, a lot of that stuff wasn't his fault last year," Smith said. "I went through that my second year. A lot of it wasn't my fault. That's part of being a quarterback in the NFL."

Smith has toned down his talk about a trade if it doesn't work out here. Instead, he talks about being blessed. He knows he's attractive to the Bengals as a backup because after his $10.8 million signing bonus and escalators, he's a minimum-salary player.

"I've made the majority of my money and they could just keep me here for the next three years and let me sit and see what happens if I ever do get in a game," Smith said. "You never know. That would be extremely hard. But I'm blessed. I've made a lot of money and I'm in the NFL."

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SCREENS AND DRAWS:** ESPN airs "The Life," segment on Bengals running back Corey Dillon this Thursday night/Friday morning (June 6-7) at 12:30 a.m. It will also be shown Saturday night/Sunday morning (June 8-9) at 3 a.m; Tuesday (June 11) at 2 p.m., and Saturday night/Sunday morning (June 15-16) on ESPN II at 12 a.m.. . .

Bengals vice president Paul Brown and the agent for second-rounder Lamont Thompson are keeping in touch, but the talks with Mike Sullivan have been impacted by the Chiefs signing of the player taken two spots behind Thompson.

ESPN.com reported Wednesday that Alabama-Birmingham defensive tackle Eddie Freeman, the 11th player taken in the round, got a four-year, $3 million deal with a $1.45 million bonus, a 5.5-percent increase over last year.

Since the rookie pool stayed flat and is the same as it was last year, the Bengals were looking to pay Thompson what the ninth pick in the second round got last year. That was $1.39 million to sign a $2.8 million deal. The Bengals are waiting to get official word from the NFL on the deal, but have indicated they are looking to sign Thompson to a market deal.

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