Lewis confident of No. 1 deal

4-21-03, 12:30 a.m. Updated:
4-21-03, 9:30 p.m. Updated:
4-22-03, 1:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

A cautious Marvin Lewis gave all indications Tuesday that the Bengals are on the verge of reaching an agreement with Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer and making him the No. 1 pick in this weekend's NFL Draft.

It's believed that David Dunn, Palmer's agent, remained in Cincinnati Tuesday in an effort to close the gap on a deal that would be the earliest rookie signing for an organization that has been dogged by training camp holdouts of rookie quarterbacks.

Lewis didn't mention Palmer by name, but said, "I think we feel comfortable where we are in that process," and "We've had very productive discussions.

Yet, in his first media draft briefing as head coach Tuesday, Lewis didn't hide the fact he is strongly optimistic the deal will be done before the draft and he knows how important that is for his team's image makeover.

"We will displace another myth," said Lewis of the pre-draft deal. "Come September, we'll displace another one. We're doing things which people said we couldn't do and now you've got to get the players to believe that."

Various league sources outside the Bengals, as well as ESPN.com reported Monday that the club appeared to be escalating exclusive negotiations with Palmer. ESPN.com reported that Dunn arrived in Cincinnati Monday for face-to-face talks with Bengals' officials.

The Bengals have refused to comment during the process in which they have also talked with Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich and Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman, and Lewis refused to talk about Palmer Tuesday. But they look to be poised to punctuate their busiest offseason in history with what is believed to be the first time they have agreed to terms with a pick before the draft, which they can because they choose first.

Dunn couldn't be reached for comment Monday night. Newman's agent, David Ware, also couldn't be reached for comment. Leftwich's agent, Tom Condon, indicated he hasn't spoken to the club since Friday.

In the Bengals' recent past, a face-to-face meeting with agents more often than not has yielded a deal. It was during a Paul Brown Stadium meeting over two days two years ago in which Dunn consummated running back Corey Dillon's five-year, $26 million contract.

The 6-5, 235-pound Palmer started 32 games at USC, but is best remembered for the 11 this past year in which he threw 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in leading the Trojans to nine wins. He finished his career as the Pac-10's all-time leading passer with nearly 12,000 yards and ended up with 72 touchdown passes against 46 interceptions.

NFL sources outside the Bengals indicated this past weekend that the next 24 to 48 hours are crucial in the club's effort to reach a pre-draft deal.

But one things is for sure. Lewis wants a deal done before the draft festivities scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. He drove home that point during last month's annual NFL meeting.

"It's important for us, for how our program is, our team, our city, that we don't have any problems doing that," Lewis told the national media.

If it is Palmer, a deal would prevent another training camp holdout by a first-round quarterback that dogged the rookie seasons and then the careers of David Klingler in 1992 and Akili Smith in 1999. Ironically, both were represented by Dunn, Leigh Steinberg, and Jeff Moorad before the group split a few years ago.

Klingler, the sixth pick in the draft, didn't sign until about a week before the opener and won just four starts in four seasons. Smith, the third pick, missed the first 27 practices of camp, and has finished just two victories in the NFL.

The sources have indicated that these negotiations haven't been without its problems because the rookie salary cap is the same as last year, but agents argue that players still get raises despite what is known as a flat pool.

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