Bengals won't rush top pick

3-18-03, 4:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Marvin Lewis is no George Allen.

Oh, Lewis wants to win now. But he doesn't want to blow up 2004 and 2005 for the sake of 2003. Which is why he insists that the player the Bengals take with the No. 1 pick in the draft doesn't have to be an Opening Day starter.

And, Lewis reiterated this week the Bengals are looking at quarterbacks and non-quarterbacks alike, and a trade is still an option.

Free agency appears to have come to a standstill with the Bengals believed to be far enough under the salary cap that they may have to make some moves to get enough money to sign their draft picks. The three-year contract that receiver-returner Jermaine Lewis got in Jacksonville Wednesday night is reportedly worth nearly $3 million, apparently too rich for them to fit under the cap with more pressing needs at fullback and on the offensive line.

"We like where we are," Marvin Lewis said before the Jermaine Lewis signing.

The only news on the Bengals' free-agent front Wednesday came when Gus Frerotte, last year's Opening Day quarterback who lasted 9.5 quarters, agreed to a two-year deal in Minnesota to back up starter Daunte Culpepper for what is believed to be about $1.8 million.

It's believed Marvin Lewis is headed to Los Angeles later this week for the Bengals' private workout of USC quarterback Carson Palmer. The club also went to Michigan State's pro day Tuesday, where another potential top pick, Michigan State wide receiver Charlie Rogers, ran once on FieldTurf indoors and clocked 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash, according to NFL.com.

The Bengals have Rogers on their minds and he didn't disappoint with a 37-inch vertical leap, a 10-foot-1 long jump, a short shuttle of 4.19 seconds, and a three-cone drill of 7.10 seconds in figures reported by NFL.com. NFL.com also reported that the Bengals' Ken Zampese was one of four quarterbacks coaches present at Texas quarterback Chris Simms' workout at Giants Stadium. One of them was Jacksonville's Ken Anderson, formerly of the Bengals.

"You have to choose what's best for our future. Drafting for tomorrow, I don't know if that's the best thing," Lewis said. "We don't draft any of these guys for tomorrow. We don't sign any of these free agents for tomorrow. Tomorrow is 2003. Let's look to the future to see what the best thing is."

That would seem to suggest the Bengals plan to take the long-range view and draft Palmer, but Lewis says that's not necessarily so. Even if the Bengals took an immediate impact player like Rogers or Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman, he said, it wouldn't be for Opening Day 2003.

"The good part about it is no matter who it is, he doesn't have to be pressed into service," Lewis said. "He doesn't have to get rolled out there on the first snap, or wonder why he's not playing like an All Pro. He's going to have a chance to mature and become a pro."

Lewis said the goal is to draft the best player, so the selection won't come down to signability, although "that will be part of the process." Meanwhile, NFL insiders suggest the Bengals' prospects to trade out of the top spot are dim.

"Until you bring the trade to us, we have no options but to step up and make the best choice for the team," Lewis said.

Lewis indicated again that the Bengals won't make a decision until they watch Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich work on April 7 as he comes back from a broken leg.

"We're anxious that Byron have the same opportunities," Lewis said. "The other players are going as we speak and we're evaluating."

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