Bengals, Palmer agree on No. 1

4-24-03, 12:15 a.m. Updated:
4-24-03, 2:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

As midnight passed Thursday in the east, Carson Palmer waited out in Los Angeles to get the OK from his agents to board an early morning plane to Cincinnati.

He got the call and moments after he arrived at Paul Brown Stadium Thursday afternoon, the Bengals wrapped up a deal making him the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. Palmer, USC's Heisman Trophy winner, becomes the next Bengals quarterback of the future when he is introduced at a 3:45 p.m. news conference with a No. 9 jersey.

Agent David Dunn confirmed a six-year, $40 million deal that can max out at $49 million with incentives. Dunn said the deal includes an option signing bonus adding up to $14.01 million, with $10 million of it being paid now and $4 million to be paid next year. He said Palmer is to receive $18.25 million over the first three years, more than a 12 percent hike over what last year's No. 1 David Carr receivd in Houston.

In an effort to keep Palmer's annual salary cap charge in check, the Bengals were reportedly attempting to get Palmer's triggers earlier in the deal, as opposed to the bigger window in Akili Smith's 1999 contract.

The club apparently wanted to make sure if Palmer got out of the deal early because of a lack of performance, the Bengals wanted to make sure they wouldn't take a huge salary cap hit if he still got a good chunk of money.

Smith's deal, of which Dunn was a part of four years ago as a Leigh Steinberg partner, approached 50 pages. With four years of experience, it figures the Palmer deal is going to hit the half-century mark with ease.

Thursday's news conference probably spoils a Draft Day extravaganza the Bengals had planned for Saturday. After Palmer had been introduced and met the media in New York City, Palmer, three of his guests, and Bengals' officials were to head to a New Jersey airport to jet to Cincinnati on a private plane. They were to take a limousine to PBS, and might have been there in time to see the Bengals select their second-round pick at about 4:30 p.m.

But Palmer looks to be making a more pedestrian trip Thursday that probably better fits his low-key personality. He is to be joined by his parents and fiancee. Palmer's quiet, good-guy personality figures to be welcome in the Bengals' locker room. Wide receiver Danny Farmer, who has become friendly with Palmer this offseason because they share agents and workout schedules, loves the fit.

"He'll come in here and get along with everybody," Farmer said. "He's confident, but he's not cocky at all. I think that's his best attribute. There's nothing wrong with being quiet. I think it's a tribute to his character."

Farmer has caught enough of his passes to think that Palmer is going to make his mark.

"No question he's got a big arm. He can make every throw out there," Farmer said. "When he gets behind center, he'll make some things happen."

The Bengals have wanted to defer to the NFL, the commissioner, and tradition, in keeping their contract negotiations under wraps until it got closer to the moment Paul Tagliabue made the announcement Saturday at noon in New York's Madison Square Garden Theater.

But events have overtaken protocol and the Bengals are set to welcome their first Heisman Trophy winner since they took Ohio State running back Archie Griffin with the 24th pick in 1976.

And Palmer is head coach Marvin Lewis' first pick of a new era, and shows what he wants in players in his bid to rebuild the Bengals. 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."

Palmer 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."

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