Centering the options

4-15-03, 6 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

While the Bengals and the agents for the potential No. 1 picks figure to jockey around contract parameters, the buzz continues to be a quarterback and the national media is convinced it is USC's Carson Palmer. Even though at least Marshall's Byron Leftwich is probably still in the mix of what looks to be the preliminaries after the Bengals emerged from Monday's first draft meeting.

Thought to also be part of the discussions are Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman and Michigan State wide receiver Charlie Rogers, as well as a road map for a contract potentially in the $50 million range and the ensuing negotiating strategy to be used this week.

But one of the key questions lost in the buzz is who is going to snap the ball to that next quarterback of the future? It turns out the potential successors to center Rich Braham (who could still succeed himself) were right in front of them at last weekend's minicamp and maybe not in the upcoming NFL Draft.

Long-time backup Brock Gutierrez did what he usually does and relative newcomer Thatcher Szalay did better than expected in his first crack at making the transition from guard to center. Which appears to be good enough to get the Bengals thinking they may very well not have to turn to a thin but rich crop of rookie centers on Draft Weekend. That would allow them to focus on cornerbacks, wide receivers, and defensive linemen early in the draft.

(Here is a list of the top centers in a compilation of rankings from Jerry Jones, Mel Kiper, Ourlads' Scouting Services, and "Pro Football Weekly":)

TOP CENTERS

NAME SCHOOL HT WT
Jeff Faine Notre Dame 6-2 303
Al Johnson Wisconsin 6-3 305
Bruce Nelson Iowa 6-5 301
Dan Koppen Boston College 6-2 295
Brett Romberg Miami 6-2 292

The Bengals have the right of first refusal with Braham, a free agent who has been their tough anchor in the middle since 1999. He's still an option, but he turns 33 in November. They have had an offer out to the Titans' Gennaro DiNapoli for 10 days and haven't talked since, and word out of Tennessee is that the Titans also have an offer out to him. While the Bengals' deal is bigger, DiNapoli figures to stay in Tennessee because the money is going to end up being close.

But another indication the Bengals may not use the draft just to fill a depth chart can be found in the bedrock of new head coach Marvin Lewis' personnel philosophy.

"Marvin's not going to reach," said offensive line coach Paul Alexander. "He's going to want us to get the best player. I think it's a sound philosophy. It's the best way to go."

Meanwhile, the Bengals seem to be looking inward. They think Gutierrez, who turns 30 early in the season, can give them a 16-game year. He's had eight starts since he joined the club as a free agent out of Central Michigan in 1996, seven of them in the 2000 season the Bengals finished second in NFL rushing.

"He had a good camp and the best trait about Brock is he has always been a good player," Alexander said. "Every time Brock has played, he's played well. He's real smart, real good on linebackers, real good calling the shots and making the calls. He's played so much and when he's been in there, he does the job."

The 6-3, 305-pound Gutierrez is pretty much the same size as Braham and has the same stoic tough-man streak. He has played in 63 of the past 64 games as a special teams staple, and the only game he missed came the week after he finished a game with three broken bones in his back.

But Gutierrez has produced with a different style than Braham. He isn't known for blowing up guys at the line of scrimmage ("Richie might be more of bruiser than I am"), but Alexander says "he's adequate at the point of attack." Last year when he started one game in place of Braham, the Bengals had 381 yards against the Ravens, and when he played for him a lot because of an ankle injury, they beat the Saints on 240 yards rushing.

"I've been called upon from time to time and I think I played well, I think I've showed I can play," Gutierrez said. "I know I can play and that I can do it (for 16 games). Everybody has to play to their strengths. I think I'm quick and know the offense pretty well."

If the Bengals opt not to turn to Braham, it's probably because they can go right to a guy who has been in the system virtually as long as he has. Gutierrez knows the Bengals have several options not him (Braham, DiNapoli a draft pick), but he went through the camp like he will be the man snapping the ball to Jon Kitna Sept. 7 against Denver.

"I don't have any control over it," Gutierrez said. "They haven't told me anything. As far as I know, I'm the starter right now and I'm going to keep going like that until they tell me differently."

Another reason they may not go drafting is because they could have found their future in the 6-4, 300-pound Szalay, last season's free agent out of Division I-AA Montana. An All-American guard, Szalay tinkered at center last season, but took reps for the first time there this past weekend.

"To be honest, the transition went better than we thought it would," Alexander said. "There were no fumbled snaps, no missed calls. He impressed us. He's a strong guy. He's hard-nosed and he knows football."

Szalay admits the switch has been a challenge to learn the different techniques, but he enjoys the mental demands in the middle.

"You've got to make the line calls, remember the snap count, and you've got to be quicker getting in front of people," he said. "If it's an opportunity to get more reps, you have to take advantage."

Jerry Jones, the former Cincinnati pharmacist who ranks players in "The Drugstore List," says the Bengals will have options in the draft that probably end in the fourth round. Ourlads projects Wisconsin's Al Johnson going to the Bengals in the second round with the 33rd pick, but Jones says they might be able to get his favorite at the top of the third round in the 6-5, 300-pound Bruce Nelson out of Iowa.

Kiper, who calls Nelson "a fight-till-the-death player," has him going in the fourth round. Ourlads projects him late in the second.

"He would be my pick," Jones said of a guy that played three spots at Iowa. "He''s versatile, he's very big, he's athletic, and he's part of that Iowa thing that anybody on that line can play."

It looks to be a tossup between Johnson and Notre Dame's Jeff Faine for the top spot at the position. Jones thinks the Raiders are going to grab one of them with one of the last two picks in the first round to resolve the Barret Robbins situation.

Jones calls Faine the classic Notre Dame lineman as solid, steady and well schooled. Ourlads calls him "nasty," with a warrior mentality. The experts seem to give Faine the athletic edge and Johnson the edge in technique and consistency.

"What pushes (Faine) down the draft board is the fact that few teams desperately need help at the center position," wrote Kiper in his final draft report.

In sending Johnson to Cincinnati, Ourlads rated him a solid prospect who "gets out on linebackers with a burst and usually makes good contact upfield." Nelson is coming off a season the Hawkeyes allowed just 11 sacks.

How late can the Bengals get a top center? Some time the second day. Ourlads projects Boston College's Dan Koppen going to Seattle in the fourth round and Miami of Florida's Brett Romberg going to Oakland in the fifth. Jones isn't sure if Romberg gets to the top of the fifth for the Bengals as a late fourth-rounder.

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