2-19-03, 4:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
INDIANAPOLIS _ With prospects for a trade that would ship the NFL's No. 1 pick out of Cincinnati remaining dim, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis let the rest of the league know Wednesday that the Bengals will listen to a price in their bid to get the handful of players he thinks they need to win the AFC North title.
But Lewis also knows if the Bengals keep the pick and he takes a bengals.com fan poll among his middle-age, clock-watching players, they wouldn't want him to go near a rookie quarterback.
"In their minds, that's a little bit of a fear," said Lewis here at the NFL scouting combine. "People think if you pick a quarterback No. 1, you've got to put that guy in there right now. I bet if you polled our players right now, they don't want to do that. They believe in Jon (Kitna) and they feel real comfortable with him being their starting quarterback and their leader. It's kind of his job to sink or swim with."
As the combine kicked into its first full day with medical exams and interviews of the nation's top college players at the RCA Dome, Lewis indicated the Bengals are looking for at least a second-round pick in addition to swapping No. 1s, and probably more for the first pick.
"You want to gain at least an additional player out of the deal," Lewis said. "We're a football team that could use an upgrade at five or six places. If we could garner that on the first day, we would have really helped ourselves.
"That's our goal," Lewis said. "We're five or six players away from competing with the leaders in our division and having an opportunity to compete for the playoffs."
While NFL conventional wisdom suggests the Bengals won't get any takers from teams like the Bears (picking fourth) and the Panthers (ninth), there are also indications that USC quarterback Carson Palmer is, at the moment, not a slam-dunk pick for Cincinnati.
"I just don't see that pick moving because I don't think there's that much difference between the top two or three quarterbacks," said one NFL general manager. "I don't see a team thinking there is a quarterback there they absolutely have to have. They can wait and get one pretty close without having to pay the huge price."
And it's a huge price. In 2001, the Falcons gave up a third-rounder, a second-rounder in 2002, and wide receiver Tim Dwight to move up from No. 5 to take Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick.
Lewis cited such players as Michigan State wide receiver Charlie Rogers, Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman, and two or three defensive tackles to consider with Palmer in a decision that doesn't have to be made for two more months until the April 26-27 draft. He has also thrown Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich into the mix.
Lewis listed a quarterback for the future as a need in this draft, but he mentioned speed wide receiver, two defensive linemen, interior offensive linemen, and secondary help first.
"We have a group of guys in their third through seventh or eighth year who (have a) window of opportunity for a chance to be successful," Lewis said. "They've endured being at the bottom. If we're going to make a jump, we need to make the jump now. To start again and to say that you're going to go through it with a rookie quarterback, I don't know that it's quite fair for those guys right from the start."
Right tackle Willie Anderson understands the players don't have a say, but he says Lewis has his pulse on the team already.
"I think he's got that right," Anderson said. "I think if you took a vote among the core guys, it would probably be for an offensive or defensive lineman or a cornerback. I think Marvin is going to have us going in such a direction that Jon will play like the guy that put up 25 points a game like he did last year, but he won't feel like he has to do some of the things he thought he had to try last year."
Kitna predicted Wednesday the Bengals will take a quarterback some time during the two days of the draft and has no problems with it. But he admitted for a team that has made a staple out of quarterback controversies, taking a QB No. 1 is a challenge.
"I could understand it, but anytime you've got a No. 1 guy, it spices it up," Kitna said. "The backup quarterback is always the most popular guy, so it would probably be a distraction and that's something we probably don't need. But you have to do what's best for the team and I understand that. And I'll work with the guy."
Lewis said the rookie "won't be thrown to the wolves," and Kitna knows that's part of the attraction of taking Palmer or Leftwich. The kid can sit and learn for a season from a guy like Kitna who has spent five seasons in the same system.
"That's the kind of help I had from John Friesz and Warren Moon in Seattle," Kitna said. "And it's the kind of help I needed when (Mike) Holmgren came in with a new system."
Kitna endorses whatever Lewis' coaching staff does even though the Bengals' last two first-round quarterbacks, David Klingler and Akili Smith, didn't pan out.
"They've got a plan and they've got a direction to get this thing turned around and they're not connected to the past," Kitna said.
And Lewis said the past can't weigh heavily when making the pick.
"That's a part of it. There's no question that goes through Mike's (Brown) mind," Lewis said. "But you don't go into this thing to fail. We don't do our jobs to fail. If you do the research, the character, the background all the way through, which we've been able to do and are continuing to do on these guys, you've got to feel like you've done the right thing."
But the Klinglers are fresher in other teams' minds than the Vicks. Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo, who has sought a QB ever since he's been in Chicago, declined to comment on a possible trade. Yet, it should be recalled that Angelo took part in the pain of drafting quarterbacks in the top five picks(Vinny Testaverde and Trent Dilfer) while in Tampa Bay and probably won't be willing to give up something for the right to possibly get more pain.
Plus, word is the Bears seek a defensive lineman, which they can easily get at No. 4.
"For us to get from nine to one is going to be very difficult," said Carolina's Marty Hurney, another general manager shopping for a quarterback. "We're at the point where we need players and I just don't think we're in a position to give up picks."
It's so early that nobody is going to rule out anything. Guys like Lewis, Angelo, and Hurney are still evaluating players.
And, you could make an argument for Palmer/Leftwich that the recent No. 1 quarterbacks have panned out besides Vick, such as Houston's David Carr last year and Cleveland's Tim Couch in 1999. Plus, Palmer has his supporters.
Texans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer drafted both and likes the look of Carson Palmer. Chris Palmer is very impressed by the four seasons Palmer logged in Los Angeles.
"The quarterbacks who play all four years don't get enough credit. That's what the kid in Philadelphia did," said Chris Palmer of Donovan McNabb. "Palmer had a heck of a senior year."
Asked if Carson Palmer is in a class with Couch or Carr, Chris Palmer said, "I haven't seen enough of him, but I know he's a good player."