Bengals near deal with Palmer

4-22-03, 8:45 p.m. Updated:
4-23-03, 7 p.m. **Updated:

BY GEOFF HOBSON

In what appears to be deference to the NFL, the commissioner, and tradition, the Bengals are keeping their contract negotiations with the draft's No. 1 pick under wraps until it gets closer to the moment Paul Tagliabue makes the announcement Saturday at noon in New York's Madison Square Garden Theater.

CNN.com actually reported Wednesday night that the Bengals had reached an agreement with USC quarterback Carson Palmer, and could introduce him in a Paul Brown Stadium press conference as soon as Thursday. But a source outside the Bengals said details were still being ironed in a typically complicated rookie quarterback deal that had yet to be filed with the various league types. Yet, it's apparent the Bengals are close to striking their first pre-draft deal in history.

The club had no comment and agent David Dunn couldn't be reached for comment.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis didn't confirm a deal near the end of business Wednesday, but expressed optimism that the club would secure a deal before Saturday.

"I wouldn't say it's imminent," Lewis said, "but things are going very smoothly."

It's believed that Dunn remained in town Wednesday in an attempt to close out a deal before Saturday.

Published reports locally and nationally continue to point to Palmer and the developments of the last 48 hours have done nothing to dispel the notion that the Bengals are on the verge of drafting their first Heisman Trophy winner since they took Ohio State running back Archie Griffin with the 24th pick in 1976. In fact, after Lewis' news conference on Tuesday, it appeared all that was left was loose ends.

(Actually, Dunn did do a deal with the Bengals Tuesday. Except it was a one-year, $605,000 contract for restricted free agent wide receiver Danny Farmer).

A jaunty Lewis was clearly pleased with his club's status heading into the weekend when the head coach met the media Tuesday at Paul Brown Stadium and expressed confidence his team can change its national perception with a pre-draft deal. He didn't say it was a Dunn deal, but he smiled a lot.

"I think we feel comfortable where we are in that process," said Lewis, not mentioning Palmer. "We've had very productive discussions.

"We will displace another myth," said Lewis of the early contract. "Come September, we'll displace another one. We're doing things which people said we couldn't do and now you've got to get the players to believe that."

Here's another myth shattered. No matter which player or when the Bengals select him, the No. 1 pick won't arrive via a middle seat in the emergency exit row back in coach. It will be a Ken Griffey Jr. entrance.

After he's introduced and meets the media in New York, the player, three of his guests, and Bengals' officials head to a New Jersey airport to jet to Cincinnati on a private plane. They'll take a limousine to Paul Brown Stadium and may get there in time to see the Bengals select their second-round pick at about 4:30 p.m.

Of course, with all the escalators, triggers, and clauses that are part of a top quarterback deal, it may take until Saturday to find out if there is a deal and who it is. But, at the very least, considering a quarterback so strongly shows what Lewis wants in players in his bid to rebuild the Bengals. If you look at Palmer as an example, Lewis' two key elements look to be future upside and character.

The Opening Day 2003 answer is Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman, like Palmer and Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich a terrific character guy. But Lewis said several times Tuesday he's looking at the future and not the Broncos on Sept. 7 in putting together a roster. Spoken like a guy who figures to be around at least five years.

"At the end of the day, you have to take the guys and you've got to coach their tail off and make them better players two years down the road," Lewis said. "You're not drafting for tomorrow, you're drafting for the future. There's not the exact guy you have to have type of players out there. At least I haven't run across them yet."

What Lewis wants to run up against is players who will reach their peak for him and not on the ESPN draft show.

"We're not looking for the best guy on his college campus," Lewis said. "(He wants) the guy who continues to elevate himself both physically and mentally to play at this level against bigger, faster guys. You can't be maxed out on campus. You have to be able to continue to grow."

If it is Palmer, he certainly fits that requirement. After a tough career filled with coaching changes, Palmer put together a monstrous senior season when finally using the same playbook two straight years.

There is no character question when it comes to the 23-year-old Palmer. He plans to be married July Fourth weekend on Pebble Beach, and his stability and work ethic have won rave reviews around the NFL. An orange-and-black endorsement from Boomer Esiason who vouches for him as "a great kid," doesn't hurt, either.

On Tuesday, Lewis said he wants "high character people," and he puts a huge premium on scouts talking to people like equipment managers, trainers, and secretaries to get a true reading of how the prospect treats people around him.

"We have concerns as far as work habits," Lewis said. "That's something we feel is very important. To talk about each and every prospect and how he can learn. A lot of that comes into play prior to the rare ability for his position. That's a big factor, but we want to make sure those things are in order first and feel comfortable where they are."

Not only did Lewis sound confident about a No. 1 deal, but also about the kind of guy he is getting.

"By the end of Saturday night," Lewis said, "I'm very confident we'll have three fine football players, and more importantly, three very fine people."

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