Lewis: Leftwich deserves look

2-24-03, 7:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Marvin Lewis returned to the office after his first NFL scouting combine Monday as Bengals head coach and cleared his desk to prepare for Friday's start of free agency:

He is pleased with how smoothly the club's 60 interviews ran at the combine in the first tangible evidence that the franchise's coach-driven scouting philosophy is shifting more to the player personnel department under Lewis.

The good news for Leftwich is that he reportedly got a passing grade from the NFL's medical staff last week at the combine despite playing in his bowl game with a stress fracture in his lower left leg and the presence of a rod in the leg from an earlier injury. The bad news is he couldn't work at the combine and can't show the scouts anything until 19 days before the draft.

"We need to see him work out. I think that's important," Lewis said. "What he did this year on tape, it's warranted. We want to make sure we go through the process."

The Bengals have always liked the 6-5, 241-pound Leftwich's size, arm, and production in a passing offense. He apparently wowed them during his 15-minute interview at the combine, where he impressed them with his effervescent personality.

"Great interview," Lewis said. "He has a very astute football mind. He communicates. It's obvious his teammates love the hell out of him."

Lewis said part of the selection is no doubt going to come down to signability ("We know what the worth of the pick is. It's going to be part of the process"), but said it won't deter the club from "picking the best player." Lewis wouldn't comment on possible scenarios. Such as this one:

What if the Bengals think the best player is a non-quarterback, such as Terence Newman, Jimmy Kennedy, or Charlie Rogers? And what if the Bengals don't want to give a cornerback, defensive tackle, or wide receiver No. 1 money? Do they craft a deal and offer one of them, a chance to be the draft first pick?

Lewis is dealing with more pressing matters in free agency. He said he ran into the agent for Pro Bowl fullback Lorenzo Neal this weekend in Indianapolis and reported he is interested in talking before Friday about his client before he goes on the market. The agent for Jermaine Lewis couldn't be reached Monday, but Marvin Lewis has high regard for the man who returned a kickoff for a touchdown two Super Bowls ago when both won a ring with Baltimore.

"Jermaine has tremendous ability. We have to research it," Marvin Lewis said. "But we have a guy who should be a very good returner in Peter Warrick. He'll get a chance. We're all in competition here. Everyone is in a competition. We're looking for the best catcher."

Whoever it is, Marvin Lewis is looking for someone with sure hands. Warrick lost his job fumbling a punt inside his 5-yard line in Indianapolis last season, and his replacement, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, dropped one and fumbled away another. Lewis, 28, got cut in Houston for salary cap reasons. The Dolphins and Baltimore are also interested. He went to the University of Maryland and lists his hometown as Lanham, Md., but does he want to return to a team that put him on the expansion list?

The last of the Bengals' combine contingent is back in the office Tuesday and Lewis thinks his staff adjusted well to the new format that gave structure to the interviews. With the club getting 60 players for 15 minutes each throughout the week, assistant coaches didn't have to chase down prospects in the hallway.

In past Bengals' interview rooms, about three or four coaches at most talked to the prospects, and the head coach wasn't in on everyone like Lewis was this past week. Of course, it was hard for the head coach to be in on all 200 interviews that took place before this year.

Lewis made sure all the scouts sat in on these meetings and wanted director of football operations Jim Lippincott and director of player personnel Duke Tobin to lead the questioning. By the time you added a position coach, and a coordinator, it got crowded. And they had an extra body Saturday night when Bengals President Mike Brown visited when the top quarterbacks came into the room.

"Sure he did," said Lewis when asked if Brown fired out some questions. "He's the owner. He has every right to do that."

Lewis also got assists from offensive assistant Bob Surace and assistant equipment manager Jeff Brickner.

"Bob and Brick were all over the place getting the room squared away, making sure the timing came off OK and worked their butts off," Lewis. "And Jim and Duke did an outstanding job leading us. They put together an awesome list of players for us and then made sure we had the topics covered. I think it went great."

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