4-13-01, 3:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
It may be Dick LeBeau's first NFL Draft as a head coach.
But he's using the same best-available-athlete philosophy that has filtered through War Rooms since a coach in Cleveland named Paul Brown selected LeBeau in the fifth round of the last draft of the 1950s.
"If there is a positional need and there is a dramatic difference in the impact abilities of players available, you better take the player that can impact that game," LeBeau said Friday to media gathered at the stadium named after the man who drafted him.
"Yes, need has to come in there some place," LeBeau said, "but you better not stretch that need factor too far. I don't think you can continue to build the talent level of your roster and that's what this business is about."
Of course, it was Paul Brown who also once said, "You draft for need and don't let anyone tell you differently."
So when the Bengals start their draft meetings Monday morning to prep for next weekend's draft, Texas left tackle Leonard Davis isn't the only one up for discussion at the fourth pick as Cincinnati joins the rest of the league in trying to strike a balance between need and impact.
"We're going to look at the two wide receivers," said Bengals President Mike Brown of Michigan's David Terrell and North Carolina State's Koren Robinson.
"We're going to look at Davis and (Florida right tackle Kenyata) Walker," Brown said. "We'll look at (Missouri defensive end Justin) Smith, we'll look at (Virginia Tech quarterback Michael) Vick, we'll look at (TCU running back LaDainian) Tomlinson, we'll look at (Florida defensive tackle Gerard) Warren. We'll rank them through the week so when the draft comes, the pick has already been made as other teams pick off guys."
The only player who looks to be picked off for sure is Vick, ticketed to San Diego with the first pick, barring a trade. Arizona, at No. 2, and Cleveland, at No. 3, are mulling the same players as Cincinnati.
So what it comes down to is "rarity," says Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of pro/college personnel.
Is a 370-pound, nimble-footed left tackle (Davis) rarer than a 270-pound pass rusher (Smith). Or is a 6-3, 215-pound leaping, quick receiver (Terrell) rarer than a 310-pound athletic left tackle (Walker)?
At the moment, the rarest looks to be Davis, but that can change because of the depth of this draft.
"Unlike in previous years, we think you can get a left tackle, or a big receiver, or a defensive end in the second or third round," Lippincott said.
"So then you have to make your best educated guess on who'll be available later, and you have to decide if he's a better value than a guy playing a different position."
LeBeau makes no bones about what positions his team needs: left tackle, receiver, pass rusher, cornerback.
And he wouldn't rule out taking a quarterback, which could happen as early as the third round if the well is dry of receivers, defensive linemen and cornerbacks. But there should be one of those three available when the Bengals take the draft's 66th pick in the third round.
"We have to throw the ball better than we did last year and we will address that," LeBeau said. "It's priority No. 1.
"Priority No. 2 is we have to get more pressure on the quarterback. We have to defend the pass better. We ran the ball well last year. We defended the run well. We improved greatly in points yielded on defense. We have to get off the field on third down better. We have to pressure the quarterback more. We have to throw the ball better. Those are areas we will address in every way possible."
LeBeau admitted the Bengals might not choose a pass rusher like Smith (some think he's too small), but he doesn't think it's a death knell for a team that finished with the second fewest sacks in the NFL last season.
LeBeau feels the free-agent pickups of tackle Tony Williams and end Kevin Henry make the pass rush better through depth.
In vintage rhetorical fashion, LeBeau asked, "Do we have the one pass rusher on our roster that other teams are going to say, 'Oh man, we really have to watch him?' P> "We probably don't," LeBeau answered. "But a lot of teams are in that position. The top, top, pass rushers are rare. There are not very many in this draft. Can we afford to go through (the draft) without it? Yes, we certainly can and we may have to. Would we love to have that guy? Absolutely we would. I feel very confident that the overall level of defense has been raised with the addition of players we have added and I think we have a good shot at adding two or three more players either through free agency or the draft that's going to make our defense a salty group."
Lippincott says LeBeau has spent the most time with Brown on personnel matters than head coaches Dave Shula and Bruce Coslet. That's probably because e when free agency began on March 2 this year, Brown instituted a daily morning meeting consisting of himself, LeBeau, and personnel people. Even when Brown and LeBeau were at the league meetings last month in California, the group met by conference call.
"I like it that way," Brown said. "You don't have to say something 13 times to different people during the day. And everybody knows what everybody is thinking. And what Dick says has a heavy weight."
LeBeau is throwing that weight around to send his players a message that things will be different this year. There's not only a new offensive scheme, but LeBeau pledges unspecified changes to the defensive system.
And there's clearly the sense that even though the Bengals seem set at some positions (tight end, safety, defensive tackle) there will be moves made to upgrade anywhere.
"We like competition," LeBeau said. "We are going to add any quality player we can add that would (upgrade) that situation. We want people to feel at risk. That it is necessary they perform. That they perform at a championship level to keep their position on this football team.
"I have to do that and I want them to have to do that," LeBeau said. "I'm not against telling them they are not doing that and would they please come over and watch the action from beside me. We will not deter from that direction. We're going to get where we need to go and in order to do that, we have to have competition among our own players."