4-9-04, 11:40 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
In one fell swoop Friday, the Bengals got a Pro Bowl cornerback and picked up a fourth-rounder that gives them six players in the first 117 selections of the April 24-25 NFL Draft.
Late Thursday night, Cincinnati completed a trade with Denver in which they swapped first-round picks with the Broncos giving the Bengals cornerback Deltha O'Neal and a fourth-rounder to move up from No. 24 to No. 17 in the first round. Cincinnati, which picks 114th in the fourth round, now goes again 15 minutes later with Denver's 117th pick.
The Bengals did indeed end up getting a first-round cornerback out of this draft, but it turns out to be O'Neal, 27, the 15th pick in the 2000 draft who went to the Pro Bowl following the 2001 season. Cincinnati had just 52 NFL starts at cornerback before the trade, but O'Neal brings them 36 more.
"I'm blessed he gave me this opportunity and I thank him for that," said O'Neal of Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' effort to revive his career. "I'm just going to run with the opportunity and not look back."
O'Neal appeared at a Paul Brown Stadium news conference with wife Lisa and two-year-old daughter Talia as the Bengals introduced the man now presumed to start opposite another ex-Bronco in Tory James at left cornerback.
The announcement culminated the O'Neals' three-day visit to Cincinnati, which is apparently how long the trade took to get done in a deal brokered by vice president of player personnel Paul Brown. O'Neal had one year left on his rookie deal in Denver, but it's doubtful the Bengals signed off on a trade until they could reach a multi-year agreement with him.
The 5-10, 196-pound O'Neal is looking to jump start his career here under a head coach who is looking for hungry players on a mission. O'Neal started six games last season and was actually moved to wide receiver at the end of a difficult stay, where he caught two passes for four yards in two games. He was also inactive for three games, but said he never lost confidence.
"It had a lot to do with how I was treated in Denver. I was expecting more I guess you could say," O'Neal said. "It wasn't really confidence. I was just devastated not being on the field, watching my own teammates play. My confidence never left me. It was always going to be there. I just needed the opportunity."
The Bengals see the O'Neal who went to the Pro Bowl two years ago when he intercepted nine passes and finished fourth in the NFL averaging 13.1 yards per punt return. In 2002, O'Neal followed it up by returning two of his five interceptions for touchdowns and being named AFC Defensive Player of the Month. He's got 15 interceptions, and a touchdown each on a punt and a kickoff in his career in which he now becomes the first Bengals cornerback to have played in a Pro Bowl since Ashley Ambrose was named in 1996.
"We expect him to help us right away," said Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. "He's a proven guy in this league. We're going to work on the things he struggled with and get him back to that Pro Bowl level. I think it was a combination of things. Whatever the problems were there, they're behind him. He's a Bengal now and our goal is to help him get back to the Pro Bowl. The talent is there. He hasn't lost what he had. We just have to make sure he doesn't lose his confidence. The tendency is to let that stuff get in your head. You can't let it get to your head. I like his play-making ability. We need that, we need more big plays, and he can do that."
Four of those nine picks in 2001 came in a game against Kansas City quarterback Trent Green, when O'Neal tied a NFL record.
The O'Neal acquisition now allows the Bengals to work Dennis Weathesby into the mix at cornerback. Weathersby, one of two fourth-round picks from last season, played in just four games as a rookie. Later in the fourth round last year, the Bengals picked up a starter in fullback Jeremi Johnson at No. 118.
The fallout could be rather interesting. Thanks to the highest compensation pick in this draft (the last slot of the third round), the Bengals now have two extra picks they didn't have when the Corey Dillon trade buzz began. Whether that means they would be willing to take lower than a second-round draft pick for their unhappy running back remains to be seen.
The trade also continues the Bengals' philosophy during this offseason of staying away from aging veterans. They did pursue two thirtysomething free-agent corners in Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, but O'Neal is the fifth newcomer and the youngest. None are older than 29 (safety Kim Herring) and all were taken on the first day of their respective drafts. O'Neal is a first-rounder, Herring, wide receiver Patrick Johnson, and right guard Bobbie Williams are second-rounders, and middle linebacker Nate Webster is a third-rounder.
It's the first time the Bengals have moved in the first round since the 1995 Draft Day trade in which they traded the fifth pick in the draft and their second-rounder to Carolina for the right to take Penn State running back Ki-Jana Carter No. 1. It's the first time they've traded down since 1992, when they traded the fifth pick to Washington for the No. 6 and No. 28 picks in the first round that yielded Houston quarterback David Klingler and Miami safety Darryl Williams.
With the 2004 NFL Draft unfolding, the Bengals may have felt like the top two cornerbacks Virginia Tech's DeAngelo Hall and South Carolina's Dunta Robinson wouldn't be available at No. 17. This way, they killed two birds with one stone by getting a starting cornerback and not giving up that much ground in the first round, where they may end up with a similar type of player at No. 24 that they would have got at No. 17.
O'Neal, a California native, left the University of California as the school's leader in all-purpose yardage.