4-18-02, 8:20 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals went into the last weekend before the NFL Draft Friday trying to hammer out a contract with the No. 1 pick before next week gets very old.
Although the so-called experts continue to insist that is USC quarterback Carson Palmer, the talks have now gone on for four days and there is no sign of a deal. What they don't know is how long the Bengals will go in a negotiation before making other plans.
That's because coach Marvin Lewis isn't uttering a syllable on the topic as he bolts in and out of draft meetings at Paul Brown Stadium . While the No. 1 pick hangs in the air, Lewis is leaving no doubt that the Bengals' philosophy has shifted for all the picks. In years past, the Bengals sometimes went into the draft room trying to fill a need on the depth chart, and were accused of "reaching," or drafting players higher than they were rated.
Lewis studied under personnel Ph.Ds in Dr. Tom Donahoe in Pittsburgh and Prof. Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore, and the title of his dissertation is "Take The Best Player No Matter The Position." So if the first round is reserved for a quarterback, that doesn't mean they will draft for need in the second and third rounds, and pluck a speed receiver, cornerback, defensive lineman or center.
The Bengals are full up on linebackers, but if a linebacker is the best guy at No. 33, he's a Bengal. Same thing if he's a tackle or running back, even though they have elite starters at those positions. Not only that, the Lewis touch is being felt in a draft room with fewer coaches, where it's believed the scouts are having a bigger input than usual
"Put your grade on them and let the board work. Put the grade on them and let them stand," Lewis says of his philosophy. "If you take a guy from down there and put him up here, he's still not as good as up there. At the end of the day, what do you have but a bunch of mediocre players?"
For sure, there won't be any mediocrity at the top of the second round when it comes to the Bengals' needs. Jerry Jones, the former Cincinnati pharmacist who rates players in "The Drug Store List," sees the Bengals comparing at No. 33 such players as wide receivers Bryant Johnson of Penn State and Kelley Washington of Tennessee, cornerbacks Sammy Davis of Texas A&M and Eugene Wilson of Illinois, defensive linemen Ty Warren of Texas A&M and Rien Long of Washington State, and Wisconsin center Al Johnson.
"There is going to be somebody there they don't think is going to be there and they're going to get a big upgrade somewhere," Jones said.
As the Bengals craft a first-round contract, there are some who wonder if the Bengals might be willing to make an internal trade. If they can't sign a quarterback for what they feel is a sane contract, could they be willing to essentially trade Palmer or Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich for Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman at No. 1, and a quarterback available in the second round like Texas' Chris Simms?
No one is saying. But Lewis' history says a lot when it comes to picking players in case histories strewn with taking the guy with the highest grade.
His Ravens provided a semi-surprise when they picked Arizona cornerback Chris McAlister with the 10th pick in 1999. That was a year after they picked Miami cornerback Duane Starks also No. 10, two years after they signed Rod Woodson as a free agent, and three years after they took Tennessee cornerback DeRon Jenkins in the second round.
"The same thing really happened with Ray Lewis," said Lewis of the perennial Pro Bowl middle linebacker taken with the 26th pick in the 1996 draft. "Linebacker wasn't a need. We had Mike Caldwell, Pepper Johnson. But he was a guy we identified as one of the top 20 players."
Lewis saw it happen earlier in his career with the Steelers. In 1994, Pittsburgh was poised to make its "Blitzburgh," playoff run with its stable of veteran linebackers like Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene and young guys taken in the last two drafts, Levon Kirkland and Chad Brown, and still they took future Pro Bowl linebacker Jason Gildon in the third round.
"Levon Kirkland never played a snap of defense as a rookie other than as a nickel rusher at the goal line," Lewis said. "On offense, (tackle) Leon Searcy never dressed as a rookie because we had John Jackson and Tunch Ilkin starting and Justin Strzelczyk backing them up. That's how you make the best team."
Lewis' vision of a best team is not the one that has the most impact Opening Day, 2003, so projecting who they take at No. 33 may be bit of a tough call. Certainly the experts are split. Mel Kiper Jr. projects Middle Tennessee State receiver Tyrone Calico, while Ourlads' Scouting Services goes with Johnson, the center from Wisconsin. Kiper doesn't have Johnson going for 27 more picks and Ourlads doesn't tap Calico until the third round at No. 75.
The 6-3, 220-pound Calico is just the size the Bengals love in their wideouts, and his 4.27-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine was one of the best of all time on the notorious Indianapolis turf.
Ourlads wonders about his erratic hands, deliberate cuts, and inability to run after catch, but also concludes, "his rare combination of size, speed and athletic ability makes him an intriguing prospect."
Jones figures they'll also have a shot at a big speed receiver like Penn State's Johnson, who is nearly 6-2, weighs 206 pounds, and ran 4.4 seconds in his workout. Tennessee's Washington, a former pro baseball player, is 6-2, 223 pounds and is coming out after just two years. He may be raw, but he could be a Carl Pickens that can run and make yards after catch.
"People thought Johnson was a 4.55-second guy, that's where his times were," Jones said. "But he showed he's got some speed and really helped himself at that workout."
Davis and Wilson don't exactly fit new Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier's blueprint of big corners, but Ourlads says the 5-10 Wilson is "physical," (a must for Frazier) and Kiper says the 5-11 Davis "was rarely beaten and also significantly improved his ability in run support."
Jones thinks they have to look at two defensive linemen if they are sitting there at the top of the second and third rounds, respectively, in A&M's Warren and Alabama's Jarret Johnson. Ourlads says the 6-4, 305-pound Warren has that athleticism that Lewis is looking for as a 3-4 defensive end projecting to a 4-3 tackle. Kiper calls Warren "enigmatic," but also said he looked at times like he belonged in the draft's top ten and fought through an ankle injury late in the season that could have cut down his effectiveness.
On the flip side, the 6-2, 285-pound Johnson is an athletic enough tackle who could be an end.
"I liked the way he played, nothing flashy, he just made plays," said Jones, who is now living in Georgia and sees plenty of the SEC. "He's one of these guys who is probably going to be able to play two spots for you."
If Lewis were picking with his philosophy the last four years or so, the Bengals very well may have not picked safety Cory Hall in the third round in 1999, cornerback Mark Roman in the second round in 2000, tight end Sean Brewer in the third round in 2001, and maybe even left tackle Levi Jones in the first round last year. They were solid prospects and the Jones pick (elite 10-year left tackles don't grow on trees) can never be questioned, but they were picked in a large part for need.
One thing is for sure. When the time comes to pick next weekend, there won't be much debate.
"There should be no work on draft day," Lewis said. "You can have my seat in (the draft room) because I'll be at my desk or working out. The work is all done. We've already made the grades. By that point, you should have already separated the groupings, and know who you're going to take. The only time there should have to be a discussion is if there's a trade proposal and that doesn't even have to be in front of the entire room. Get in there about an hour before (each pick on the first day) and stay with the grade."
When Lewis is in the room, the scouts also get the floor. That's a long way for an organization that up until about 10 years or so ago asked its scouts to say virtually nothing in draft meetings in order not to get in the way of the coaches. But, as Lewis likes to say, "Players play, coaches coach, scouts scout."
"They've made the trips and made the evaluations," Lewis said of his scouts.