Deal opens draft

4-9-4, 6:55 p.m.


For nearly the first time since Bengals built the Super Bowl team of 1988, they have stockpiled at least six picks in the first four rounds of the NFL Draft.

Friday's trade for Broncos cornerback Deltha O'Neal also brought the Bengals an extra fourth-round pick, giving them six in the first four rounds for the first time since 1998. In the two previous drafts they did that, 1984 and 1986, they came up with eight starters or key special teamers in Super Bowl XXIII.

The first-round swap with Denver (the Bengals are now picking 24th and the Broncos 17th) not only opened up the entire draft board for Cincinnati, but also blunted the criticism of failing to close a deal for free-agent Warren Sapp last month.

Three days of apparent negotiations ended with a five-year deal for O'Neal, which let the deal go through since the Bengals wouldn't have been content to inherit the one year left on his Denver contract.

"We're in a more advantageous position now because we got a player we've wanted since (the NFL scouting) combine and we're still going to get an excellent young player," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "We've been saying it since we got here. The more draft picks, the better. You build through the draft."

As for Sunday's media buzz about O'Neal's teammate joining the Bengals, the agent for defensive tackle Daryl Gardener is saying what he told last month. Neil Schwartz says Gardener ending up in Cincinnati is likely because of his client's relationship with Lewis, but it can't happen until June 2 when Denver releases him. Schwartz has permission to talk to other teams, but won't comment on his talks with the Bengals except to say that both sides would like to see it. The Bengals are no commenting, most likely until June 2.

The Bengals may be able to add to that stash of draft picks if they can unload running back Corey Dillon, but right now the Bengals are focusing on next week's draft meetings as they prepare to select six of the first 117 picks.

"Let's face it. If they stayed at No. 17 and didn't get a cornerback, they would have had to draft a cornerback. The depth chart tells you that," said Jerry Jones, the former Cincinnati pharmacist who rates NFL prospects in The Drugstore List. "This opens it up for them. They could do pretty much anything at any position with that pick and get a guy that helps them."

The Bengals, who were picking No. 114 in the fourth round, now also have the 117th pick and Jones said, "That's great they're so close. You trade them, move around, it gives you a lot of flexibility."

Only one draftee from six of the first 105 picks in '98 is still with the Bengals. Brian Simmons is left from the crop that included fellow linebackers Takeo Spikes and Steve Foley, cornerback Artrell Hawkins, guard Mike Goff and defensive tackle Glen Steele.

But '84 (six picks in the first 92) and '86 (eight picks in the first 99) were huge. They chose a franchise quarterback in Boomer Esiason, a Pro Bowl safety in David Fulcher, a 1,000-yard receiver in Tim McGee, and a special teams staple in Stanford Jennings.

"This is going to turn out well for them," Jones said. "There are players out there who fit their needs."

With O'Neal filling a hole at corner, the Bengals taking an offensive player in the first round for the fifth time in six years looms possible. It is a draft deep in big, long-ball wide receivers and contains some running backs (the Jones Boys Kevin and Greg?) that may be too tempting for a team that doesn't have a happy bell cow signed past 2004.

And what about the best center in the draft, Virginia Tech's Jake Grove? The Browns took Jeff Faine last year at No. 21.

But there will also be defensive players that fill some needs, too. Ohio State cornerback Chris Gamble and USC cornerback Will Poole haven't run well in workouts but they may be more palatable at No. 24 and won't need to be rushed into the lineup a' la Hawkins, Charles Fisher, Mark Roman from that desperation second-round grab bag of 1998-2000.

Pro Football Weekly's mock draft has defensive tackles D'wan Edwards of Oregon State and Darnell Dockett of Florida State available at No. 24.

Lewis said Friday that O'Neal had been in town the past three days, indicating a new deal had to get done before the trade went down. The point man in the O'Neal trade, Bengals vice president Paul Brown, probably had to work against a deadline to hammer out the five-year contract that satisfied O'Neal and his agents, the Poston brothers.

O'Neal had been scheduled to make about $550,000 plus incentives this year, but he probably got a significant raise to get it done, as well as a bonus that may put his salary cap number for '04 in the $2 million range.

Gardener left the Broncos after one year under a cloud of controversy. Denver went after some of his signing bonus because of some actions they deemed conduct detrimental to the team, and had to go to an arbitrator to get it settled.

But Schwartz knows that Gardener had the best season of his career under Lewis in Washington in 2002, when he was arguably MVP of a defense that included Champ Bailey, LaVar Arrington and Bruce Smith. He also knows it will be a short, incentive-laden contract.

"Daryl knows he has to play to get paid," said Schwartz, reiterating what he said weeks ago when Gardener became semi-free

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