Can QB wait?

3-20-03, 6:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Not so fast.

Don't mark the Bengals down for a quarterback with the NFL Draft's No. 1 pick just yet.

Since they have fanned out across the country to individual workouts, the odds of the Bengals taking a non quarterback at the top of the draft have seemingly shifted down to 50-50, according to the buzz on the circuit. The lure of a Charlie Rogers, the Michigan State wide receiver, or a Terence Newman, the Kansas State cornerback, or one of the defensive linemen, is that he upgrades a club quicker than a quarterback such as Carson Palmer or Byron Leftwich. And, he is viewed as less of a gamble in high-stakes finance.

The emergence of a possible non-quarterback No. 1 comes against the backdrop of NFL.com's report that the Bengals are headed to a private workout with Palmer Friday in Los Angeles.

"The only reason people have Carson Palmer going No. 1 is because that's what all the internet sites are saying," said David Ware Thursday, the Atlanta-based agent for Newman. "But I don't believe the Bengals have set their draft board yet and no NFL team has until the first part of free agency runs its course. When you set your draft board, it's the best athletes who can bring the most immediate impact that are rated the highest."

Ware said the Bengals shouldn't expect to get Newman cheaper because he's not a quarterback.

But, if any rookie quarterback is going to be a gamble, the Bengals have to be asking, "Why not gamble at the top of the second round after getting a sure shot at No. 1." Which is the question that figures to be posed right now not only in the Bengals' draft room, but wherever long-term quarterback solutions are sought.

It's a question being heard by NFL.com's Gil Brandt, father of all draft gurus as one of the architects of Tom Landry's Cowboys, now tied into the network as he chronicles the daily workouts. From what he hears, talk of a quarterback going No. 1 has cooled, although is still very much viable.

He also thinks the Bengals' decision to give incumbent quarterback Jon Kitna his $1.6 million bonus when they didn't have to sends a message that they feel like they are happy enough with him not to roll the dice at No. 1 on Palmer or Leftwich. Brandt says if the Bengals wait, there is going to be an attractive enough quarterback at the top of the second round.

"If you take any of those guys No. 1, like Newman, Rogers, (Dewayne) Robertson, (Terrell) Suggs, you're going to look back in 10 years at a guy who is still on your team and you say, 'What a good pick,'" Brandt said from Dallas Thursday. "But you can't say that about the quarterbacks. Palmer might be Troy Aikman and take you to three Super Bowls. But in 10 years, you also might not be saying that. There are those safe picks and then when you take the quarterback, there is more upside, but more downside, too. The mortality rate of first-round quarterbacks is so high."

The itinerary of Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis suggests everyone is in play.

Earlier this week, he watched Rogers at Michigan State. Last week he saw Robertson, a defensive tackle, work out at Kentucky. Lewis is most likely headed to the Palmer workout. He also may take a look at Suggs, a defensive end from Arizona State because he works out next week when the NFL holds its annual meeting in Phoenix.

The Bengals can start negotiating with the No. 1 pick at any point before the official selection April 26, but there are no signs that has happened. Ware said the Bengals haven't approached him and a source close to the Palmer camp said the club hasn't approached them, either.

But Ware said the Bengals shouldn't expect to get Newman on the cheap as a cornerback. Indeed, he comes marketed as a triple threat because he can play cover corner, return kicks, and play offense at times as a wideout. Ware also thinks Newman is a fit with Lewis.

"The first player picked is the first player picked and there is a premium that comes with that," Ware said. "He's not going to come at a bargain just because he's not a quarterback. Knowing Marvin's style of defense, I'm sure he's a great fit. Marvin likes to put pressure on the quarterback and he shuts down one side of the field so he can focus on the offense and make them do what they're weakest at doing. He's always had some excellent cover corners."

Brandt calls the 5-10, 187-pound Newman one of the nicest kids he's met during his 40 years in the NFL, and, "he's the closest thing to Deion in this draft. He's got speed, he's got return ability, he's got shut-down corner ability, and he can catch the ball."

Brandt also knows the Bengals are looking for a speed receiver to team with Chad Johnson and he thinks Rogers qualifies. Even though he's just 6-2 and doesn't have the 6-4 size of Randy Moss.

"He hasn't got the best hands, but you can always improve on them," said Brandt, recalling an Oakland Raider great. "Cliff Branch was like that and he's a guy who probably ought to go into the Hall of Fame. Look at Rogers as Moss, only two inches shorter. He'll drop some passes, but he'll make some unbelievable catches and that's what you're looking for."

Brandt thinks the Bengals can get a solid quarterback prospect in the second round. Dave Ragone of Louisville? Rex Grossman of Florida? Chris Simms of Texas? Brandt says they have a shot at Simms: "He'll go anywhere between No. 25 to No. 40."

A league source outside the Bengals said it's believed Palmer is to meet with some of the club's coaches Thursday night before Friday's workout. They are certainly doing their homework on Palmer. The day before Palmer worked out last week during USC's pro day, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese met with him for three-and-half hours.

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