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Hobson's Choice: McNeal's QB shot hinges on versatility

Q: Is there a reason to believe, with a healthy Carson Palmer, the Bengals will go into the season with just two QBs and use Reggie McNeal as the emergency 3rd QB in order to free up an extra roster spot?**--DAN, Cincinnati.

Good question, but it doesn't begin with Palmer and the quarterback position. It hinges on how McNeal plays at wide receiver and on special teams in the preseason because that's how he's going to make the team. If he makes it, then they can start toying with that No. 3 QB thing that could make him the most versatile performer in the Cincinnati market next to Clyde Gray.

The competition at receiver is white hot, even if Chris Henry gets suspended and misses, say, the first month.

They keep six wides, right? So that still leaves you with Chad, T.J. Tab, Antonio Chatman, Kelley Washington, Jamall Broussard, Bennie Brazell, and McNeal as the leading candidates. If you figure Henry is going to be here eventually and Washington won't, that would seem to pit McNeal with Chatman, Broussard, and Brazell for one of the five active Game Day spots and two of the six roster spots.

McNeal's versatility gives him an edge, but he's not the only burner who has impressed in the first on-field camps. Brazell has flashed his Olympic speed and center-field hands and Chatman, a guy they really need to return punts, is coming off a nice week.

Still, if McNeal proves he can be a contributor in the passing game and be fast and physical on teams in the preseason games, his ability to be used in different packages has to be huge for him when they cut the roster.

If he can do all those things, then you can keep just two QBs and use him as your third QB, fifth receiver, and maybe third running back on Game Day. But you still get to dress only 45 guys because the designated third quarterback is the 46th guy that doesn't count.

(Or maybe you dress six receivers on Game Day if McNeal is the real deal and go light at another spot.)

So the big question in the whole thing is, "Who do you cut at receiver to make room for him?" Not only on the 53-man, but on the 45 Game Day list?

Now we get to Palmer and to heck with all the confidence about his rehab. I'm a bye guy. No matter if he could run a marathon in the time it takes Tom Cruise to make your skin crawl, rest him. Sit him. Tell him to put his knee in the sand on a California beach, give the ball to Rudi and Perry 40 times a game, and summon Palmer Oct. 15 for the fifth game of the year in Tampa Bay the week after the bye. Better safe than sorry.

Who knows? They may think he's ready. Maybe he's ready for training camp on time (or ready that second week), plays three preseason games, and he's ready for the opener in Kansas City.

But maybe not. So there's enough uncertainty around the thing that you can't be fooling around with a project/slash concept at the No. 3 quarterback.

Frankly, when it comes to McNeal at No. 3, there are a lot of ifs and whens, mainly if he contributes at other spots and when the quarterback situation becomes stable.

Given that McNeal is still learning receiver and Palmer is still rehabbing, we may be talking about 2007 instead of 2006 for McNeal as a No. 3. And that doesn't mean Palmer won't be back by at least this October (that's the way the worst case is looking, isn't it?), it just means that it won't be a normal season for all the quarterbacks.

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