Changing draft winds

4-23-02, 4:30 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

This watershed offseason for the Bengals continues to offer sea change after sea change. That goes for the draft room, where the franchise is undergoing a subtle transition to shared evaluation between scouts and coaches.

New head coach Marvin Lewis, the man driving the change from a coaching-oriented structure, showed up for his first media draft briefing Tuesday and promptly said next year he'll bring along members of the personnel department. He also singled out for praise each member of a staff that has been expanded by two, which looked to be one of the conditions of his hiring.

"It's important that all the people I mentioned and our coaches get on the same page of what we're looking for," Lewis said. "That process began to take steps in the last weekend at minicamp and it will take another step at the next minicamp and. . .so forth. . .They begin to think now, 'That's what he's talking about. That's what Marvin meant by this. He thinks this works. He thinks this doesn't work.'

"So we begin to evaluate guys that I think will be successful in our program," Lewis said. "We begin that process where it all meshes together. We realize we're picking for the Bengals now and this is what we feel works for the Bengals."

A more cohesive philosophy dictates a different kind of draft and Lewis reiterated it will be a process designed to get the best players first and to fill a depth chart with needs second. He raised a few eyebrows when he said the club could even take a running back in the second round at No. 33. With people like Penn State's Larry Johnson and Carson Palmer teammate Justin Fargas of USC possibly around, Lewis said it's not a question how much gas three-time Pro Bowler Corey Dillon has left as he heads into his seventh season.

"That's not being with respect to Corey. That's respect to the guy we pick," Lewis said. "That's something we have to look at. That's something we've already discussed, and if there's a guy there that we value highly, there is a chance we'll kind of spend our chip that way."

But in almost the same breath, Lewis also said the Bengals have needs everywhere, so taking a running back that high looks remote.

"There doesn't seem to be a position where we can't take a player that can't help," Lewis said. "At least come into training camp and be competitive. If the guy we currently have beats him out, more power to him."

Lewis talked about breaking myths Tuesday and one of them seems to be proving that the Bengals have a hard-working, effective group of talent evaluators instead of guys throwing darts against the draft-room wall as portrayed by ESPN.

"We're displacing some myths and things that were unfair," Lewis said. "When those days come around, they'll be very proud of that and they ought to be and hopefully they'll get their due for that, because they're working very hard just like we did in free agency. People worked very hard to get people signed with (deals) that they felt comfortable for us with the right people, the right players. That's exciting. I think everybody feels that excitement."

One of Lewis' first moves was to lighten the scouting load of the coaches after the season and give more pre-draft visits to the core of the scouting staff, vice president for player personnel Paul Brown, director of football operations Jim Lippincott, and director of player personnel Duke Tobin.

It was designed to give the coaches more time to concentrate on football and give the scouts who saw the prospects during the fall more input. But Lewis wants to keep his assistants heavily involved in the process, and the Bengals may still use their coaches more than most teams, which is a very big reason Bengals President Mike Brown was so attracted to Lewis in the coaching search.

"It has to work together," Lewis said. "That's the point I really stressed. I don't want to go out and spend my whole fall doing all this work, then I've got a guy who comes in after two weeks or a month and now he displaces all my information and all his information is the gospel. We have to mesh these grades together. I want to make sure they feel comfortable with their input, because if you don't give input, pretty soon it goes away."

Lewis went out of his way to single out Pete Brown, the team's senior vice president for player personnel who has always preferred to remain out of the limelight. But Brown's encyclopedic knowledge of the draft board is well known throughout the league and it didn't take Lewis long to find out.

"Pete Brown and what he does in his evaluation of talent is just awesome," Lewis said. "I'm so impressed with him. He's a wealth of knowledge of the players for me. I can ask about the last guy we have on the list at left guard to the first guy at cornerback, and he can rattle off, six, seven tapes he watched the guy on his positives and negatives. He gives me an ability to go right to the source when I want to watch a particular guy and see what I need to see."

Lewis seems to get it. If the myths are going to be shattered, his coaches have to get out of the players what guys like Pete Brown see on the draft board.

And what Lewis wants is youth, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. He thinks there are a lot of defensive linemen in this draft who are going to play for a long time, and he sees linebackers and defensive backs that are going to be available in the middle rounds. Because they have two picks in the fourth round with the Curtis Keaton trade, that may be a defensive round after a first day of possibly all offense.

"We're going to start recycling some players through," Lewis said. "We have some six, seven year players, we have some three, four and five year players. Now we're being able to cycle players as rookies and start that process going. If we can't afford a guy through free agency. . .then we can wish him well, then the next guy can step in and take his spot."

Look for the nine draft picks to have some of the qualities Lewis has been stressing since he arrived. Speed, athleticism (what he calls a "deep knee bender"), smarts, a winning tradition, and the potential to improve rather than to peak.

But don't expect to see any Draft Room Cams with Lewis poring over reams of paper during the weekend. Last week, he said he may spend a good chunk of Draft Day down stairs working out. On Tuesday, he reiterated the point that all the work has been done in the previous two weeks of draft meetings and all that is left is for the names to come off the board and for the Bengals to plug in with their grades. He can see his coaches spending a good part of the day working on football.

"It's not a forum," Lewis said of the draft room on Draft Day. "It's not the floor of the Senate where you're debating things, It's going to be done. It's already been decided."

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