Bengals near No. 1 call

4-13-03, 7:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

For Terence Newman, the visits have become old hat. For Carson Palmer, the visits with the Bengals have become as comfortable as an old hat.

"He's on my Christmas card list already, probably, we see him so much," said Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese after Palmer sat in on Sunday's two offensive meetings at Paul Brown Stadium.

Which is one of the may reasons why, with 13 shopping days left until the NFL Draft, Palmer, the USC quarterback whose quick, accurate release connected with the Heisman Trophy, is projected to go to the Bengals with the No. 1 pick. They figure to open negotiations this week with their choice, so in the name of due diligence Sunday, they also brought in Newman, Kansas State's versatile cover cornerback, and both prospects decked out in official Rob Recker-issued Bengals wear watched the final two workouts of head coach Marvin Lewis' first minicamp.

The pair's itineraries would seem to dictate how this pick is going to go. The Bengals are the only team Palmer has visited, while this was Newman's fifth trip.

But the agents for the top players (including Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich and Michigan State wide receiver Charlie Rogers) have indicated no negotiations have started yet because the Bengals have yet to make a decision. The coaches have been quite taken with the personalities of Palmer and Leftwich, but Newman and Rogers are enough in the mix that the Bengals head into serious draft meetings Monday, and Lewis has said he would like to start contract talks this week.

And, there is always the looming possibility of a trade, although it's doubtful the Bengals would deal out of the top ten.

"It's important for me that we know as much as we can about as many of the people we draft," said Lewis who wouldn't discuss the prospects or a timetable for a signing. "Because when you bring a guy to your place, we can't fit a square peg into a round hole. So we have to have in place a plan. No. 1 that he has the skills to do what we want to do, or we better get ready to change what he can do at some point."

The Bengals have been criticized for failing to do exactly that with the last quarterback they took at the top of the draft when they selected Akili Smith No. 3 in 1999. But Smith is going through a kind of rehab with Lewis and the coach, noting his off-season work ethic, indicated Sunday Smith very well could still be a Bengal even if they take Palmer or Leftwich in the first round.

"We can keep Akili as our No. 2 quarterback, or No. 1 quarterback, or third quarterback," Lewis said. "We haven't played anybody yet, so we've got a long ways to go."

Smith remembers a long way ago, April of 2000 to be exact, and how then-head coach Bruce Coslet looked at his second-year quarterback and told him, "We'll only go as far as you take us." Smith hopes the Bengals never do that to Palmer.

"Keep the pressure off the kid," Smith said between practices Sunday. "Groom him, bring him along slowly. If they happen to take Palmer and get rid of me, let (Jon) Kitna handle it. "Kitna is more than capable of handling the job."

If he gets the call, Palmer is going to have several benefits Smith didn't have in 1999, such as coming in with a fresh new coaching staff that features a new head man and a new quarterbacks coach, and two other offensive assistants in the passing game not associated with the grim past of rookie Bengals quarterbacks.

Plus, he won't have a hostile veteran incumbent to deal with like Smith did with Jeff Blake.

Plus, on Sunday, Palmer was already feeling out the role of fourth quarterback, sitting in the final two offensive meetings in which the Bengals installed their offense. So, if they draft him, he can pick up where he left off 19 days from now, when the Bengals return for the May 2-5 camp. He also spent Saturday night at PBS watching tape of the minicamp practices

"I don't know if he's allowed to take notes or if he was," Zampese joked. "I had three other guys to worry about. He's a very intelligent person who handles himself and football well."

Lewis kept the prospects off limits from the media, but both are used to the spotlight. Newman jetted in from St. Louis after going to Houston and Chicago. Last month in Los Angeles, Palmer spent a part of back-to-back weekends with Zampese and Bratkowski and part of one with Lewis.

Kitna, who has been saying all offseason he would gladly tutor a rookie the way Warren Moon and John Friesz treated him in Seattle, said it again Sunday. He didn't have a chance to chat with Palmer in the morning, but he was ready in the afternoon.

"It was weird seeing him in the meetings. For a minute, I thought it was (former Bengals quarterback) Scott Covington because of those southern California highlights," Kitna said with a laugh. "I'll get to him this afternoon, start helping him now. I know he's getting married (July 6), so that's the first thing I have to tell him about."

Lewis said six weeks ago at the NFL scouting combine that a team poll would probably reveal the veterans wouldn't vote to take a quarterback No. 1. But on Sunday, the locker room thought it is going to happen.

"They have no choice. A quarterback is the only guy you can take with that pick," said wide receiver Chad Johnson.

Right tackle Willie Anderson isn't voting, but his concern is that a guy like Palmer gets the same pressure play from the media that Smith got.

"You quit printing the words, 'franchise quarterback,'" Anderson said. "You're not a franchise quarterback until you do something. Peyton Manning is a franchise quarterback. Don't put that tag on the first day he walks in. A franchise quarterback? You aren't a franchise quarterback until you carry a franchise."

Kitna is the unquestioned starter heading into training camp for the first time in his three Bengals' seasons, but Anderson doesn't want to see him lose the job simply because there is a No. 1 pick sitting behind him, and he believes Kitna is prepared to show the Bengals at age 30 that he is a long-haul playoff quarterback.

He may not have to worry. The first-round status did nothing for Smith, who has made two starts the past two seasons.

"If (the rookie quarterback) comes in and earns the respect of his teammates and plays his tail off, and shows he's ready, and he's with the guys, OK, (but) it will take some time. Kitna has done a good job now.

"It's interesting to see if Kitna has a Pro Bowl season, and one next year, then what do you do?" Anderson asked. "Get rid of a guy who is a Pro Bowler for a guy who hasn't done anything?"

But Kitna has been more than amenable. Even with the prospect of a No. 1 quarterback, Kitna said last week he would love to sign a contract extension past the 2004 season.

"I don't care who it is, that's just the way it is in the NFL," Kitna said last week. "If the guy plays better, he plays. That's my attitude. Whether they take a guy in the first round, second round, college free agent, or a guy that hasn't played in eight years, I have to play better than that guy."

("Can you imagine that?" Anderson asked. "A lot of guys would be ripping the team in the newspaper if they would draft a guy No. 1. That's the kind of guy Jon is.")

Smith's advice to Palmer is simple and probably what Smith wishes he would have done more of his first few seasons in the league: Stay out of trouble and study.

"Keep your nose clean," said Smith, who was acquitted of a DUI charge before the 2001 season. "As soon as he walks across that stage (on Draft Day), you've got to keep your nose clean for the rest of your life. He should be all right."

Smith said Palmer seems like "a bright guy," and he isn't lobbying to get out like he was last year if Palmer or Leftwich comes here No. 1.

"I'm looking for a job in the NFL," Smith said. "I'm not in a situation where I can say, 'Get me out of here.'"

Smith was reminded Sunday on the day he came to Cincinnati for his pre-draft visit four years ago, suburban Cincinnati was hit with a killer tornado. He understands the Shakespearean foreshadowing of 2000, when he was saddled with rookie and second-year receivers who started the season with 15 NFL catches, a struggling left tackle, and an offense that lost its top coach three games into the season with Coslet's resignation.

"Stormy weather," Smith said. "I took the blame my second year. My completion percentage was low, the laughingstock of the league. . .I was the bailout for that year and I've seen a game and two quarters since.

"After that, you do get depressed because you know you can play better than what's going out there on the field," Smith said. "You know you can. I've seen Scott Mitchell come through here, Gus Frerotte, now Kitna is here and Palmer. I've seen quarterbacks going in and out of here, you just sit back and say, 'What is going on?' That's the way it is in the NFL."

But on Sunday, Lewis tipped his hat to Smith's work before and during the minicamp (he completed a TD bomb to Johnson Sunday), which may get the trivia guys going. Has a team ever gone into Opening Day with quarterbacks taken No 1 and No. 3 overall in the draft?

"Akili is growing as a player," Lewis said. "His vision of what is going on, what's going on around him, has to continue to grow. Akili has worked extremely hard with Kenny thus far in this offseason individually. He's spent a lot of time with him. He's invested in himself, and that's the key. That's what you have to do as a pro. You have to give yourself a dividend and I think he's giving himself that opportunity."

Now, in the next few days, the Bengals have to figure out where to invest that $15 million or so signing bonus.

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