Bengals covet top pick

2-5-02, 7:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals continue not to rule out a trade for a quarterback, but they are hesitant about giving up their first-round draft pick to do it.

Bengals President Mike Brown said Tuesday a trade would also take the team out of the free-agent market because of the hit a veteran quarterback would bring to the team's salary cap.

"That doesn't mean you couldn't do it and it doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. But it does give you a pause when you debate it," Brown said. "If you make a trade like that, you probably have to give up your draft. There are free-agent guys out there who wouldn't cost you a draft pick, but they aren't rated as highly as some of the quarterbacks who might be available in a trade."

Brown can't discuss specific free agents or approach another team about a trade until March 1 because of NFL tampering rules.

Published reports have linked the Bengals to a possible trade for Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe. "The Boston Globe," is even speculating that it might not take a first-rounder to get Bledsoe for the linebacker-rich Bengals. The newspaper theorized that a New England defense built around linebackers would consider Takeo Spikes or Brian Simmons instead of a first-rounder.

The Bengals are saying nothing. But they are thinking about everything. After watching New England win the Super Bowl five months after they beat the Patriots in the season opener, the Bengals are convinced more than ever they are close to turning it around.

"With New England winning, there are probably 32 teams that think they can win next year." Brown said. "Whether that's the right way to think about it, I don't know. But that's got to be the feeling."

The Bengals certainly think they can contend for the playoffs with a top 10 defense and a Pro Bowl running back. And with many observers believing a consistently productive quarterback is the final piece, the Bengals are mulling a host of options. Although he won't rule it out, Brown says it's "not likely" the club would trade its first-round pick for a player, or another draft choice.

The Bengals like having the 10th

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pick for a variety of reasons. For one, it doesn't impact the salary cap like a top 5 pick has done to them in five of the eight drafts since the advent of the cap.

"It's a good spot. We'll get a good player who will help us at a position we need," Brown said. "And you don't have to make a terribly silly deal because you're so high in the draft. Having a high draft pick has become almost a booby prize.

"You might get a good player, but you get one thing for sure and that is you pay a guy more than he's worth and it ties up your cap room and prevents you from getting more players in the future," he said.

Brown also hasn't ruled out getting another quarterback via free agency. But he says that deal would hit the salary cap big enough to preclude any more free-agent deals.

Or, is the quarterback already here?

After watching a Super Bowl between an undrafted free agent (the Rams' Kurt Warner) and sixth-round pick (the Patriots' Tom Brady), Brown can't help wonder how a guy like Scott Covington might pan out. Covington, a seventh-round pick in 1999, has thrown five NFL passes and none in the past two seasons.

"There is only one way to know about a quarterback and that's to put him in a game and find out," Brown said. "What is pretty clear is that no one has figured out how to evaluate a quarterback. Both the Rams and New England had these guys and they didn't even get to play until there was an injury.

"We still don't know about Covington," Brown said. "We've never put him out there. Maybe we should roll the dice, put him out there. and see what he can do. All I'm saying is it's tough to know about quarterbacks and there are guys that prove it every year."

But Brown still also has high hopes for the team's top two quarterbacks expected to return in Jon Kitna and Akili Smith, and the Bengals may very well decide they can get that third guy in the later rounds of a quarterback-rich draft and groom him for a year or two.

"I'm sure there is going to be a quarterback on that list who will pan out much better than people think," Brown said. "But no one can tell you who it will be."

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