Lewis: Must fill draft void

3-30-04, 7:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

PALM BEACH, Fla. _ Marvin Lewis showed up for his second AFC head coaches media breakfast here Tuesday at the NFL annual meetings a lonely man compared to last year's interview onslaught.

Last year, the rookie head coach had the first pick in the NFL Draft and a packed interview table to prove it. This year, all he had is the brimming confidence of a man well on his way to shifting the direction of a franchise and virtually no audience.

How confident? First, he confirmed that Warren Sapp was right and his negotiations with the Bengals went off kilter before he signed with the Raiders. Then, he took one for the club in taking the blame for not finishing off said negotiations. Second, he bemoaned the Bengals' lack of ability to keep their draft picks, counting just 12 on the roster since Willie Anderson was drafted in the first round in 1996 and through the 2002 season.

"That's a real void. . .It should be something like 20 or 21," said Lewis, outlining his strategy to build a team through the draft.

He also said:

He sneered at the pundits who had a field day when Sapp blew off the Bengals and then blew them up with accusations they changed the deal on him just as he was about to become the biggest free agent in Cincinnati history. Lewis took the blame for losing Sapp, but he also said the Bengals don't always get beat by perception, as the pundits say, and they didn't end up with a bare cupboard.

"They're wrong," Lewis said. "We got what we wanted in free agency. We said from the day we finished (last season) we were going to add guys with athleticism and energy and that's what we did.

"Big names don't win football games for you," Lewis said. "You need productive guys (to) win games."

But the biggest thing out of this Marvin Manifesto is his commitment to youth and the draft. Lewis said the club crafted its free-agent strategy with the notion that last year's draft picks wouldn't sit another year. Decisions were based on the kids playing and that the second-day guys fourth-round cornerback Dennis Weathersby, fifth-round linebacker Khalid Abdullah, sixth-round defensive tackle Langston Moore, seventh-rounders Elton Patterson (defensive end) and guard Scott Kooistra aren't going to be buried.

"We didn't feel the need to overdo (a free-agent contract) and then look at two or three years down the line and (the draft picks) were playing behind those guys," Lewis said. "You never get (better). We've had them for a year. We've watched them. We've been around them. We've seen how they practiced and prepared. Now they go through training camp, through the preseason, and now it's time just to let them go."

It is the tradition from which he comes from in Baltimore. The Ravens have 23 players on their roster from the 1996-02 drafts. A dozen starters and eight have gone to the Pro Bowl. For the Bengals, they have 13 draftees from that stretch, period. Seven are starters. Three have gone to the Pro Bowl in Anderson, running back Corey Dillon, and wide receiver Chad Johnson.

"We had to fill those voids through free agency when you want to develop your football team through the draft," Lewis said. "We have to do a better job of it. Not only is it choosing the right guy, it's coaching the guy up. The responsibility comes to me as a coach. The coaches can't just blame who was picked or who picked him. . .Once that guy is chosen, I've got a responsibility as a coach to get the most out of that guy."

Lewis took a lot on himself Tuesday. He admitted that what Sapp has said about the negotiations is accurate, that the Bengals changed their offer around. But he said it was done trying to fit him into the salary-cap structure. As it was, Lewis said a Sapp signing would have caused "ripples," beyond 2005.

"Was the headline (in Kansas City), 'Chiefs lose Sapp?'" Lewis asked. "Was the headline (in Baltimore) 'Ravens lose Sapp?' That's the way it is."

Then, he absolved Bengals President Mike Brown, the designated fall guy, in the negotiations.

"Mike has the final say so. It's not a fair perception. He gets the final say on everything. It's his football team," Lewis said. "But it 's an organization decision, so ultimately it's my decision, my thing because he put me in charge of what comes out of there. (It's) my yeah or nay with his deal. (Sapp) was my nay."

Although the Bengals didn't get the big-name free-agent, Lewis thinks middle linebacker Nate Webster, safety Kim Herring, right guard Bobbie Williams, and receiver Patrick Johnson fit into his plan because of age and salary-cap count.

He only had to look as far as the perspiration rolling down Williams' face during the newest Bengals' free-agent interview to be impressed with his passion as he talked football.

"At the end of last season, we said that we needed to improve our intensity and that's what we've gone and done," Lewis said. "No question we're improved in that area. We've got (four) guys who should be in the prime of their careers. Last year, we said that we wanted to bring a sense of professionalism on how to do things and we got guys from winning backgrounds. This year, we took the guys from winning backgrounds, but also guys (in the prime) of their playing careers, and they're hungry.

Last year, the Bengals signed four players (Kevin Hardy, Tory James, Duane Clemons, Shane Matthews) older than the oldest player of this year's four, the 28-year-old Herring.

"We've got to get better, we've got to do better, we have to have a catalyst," Lewis said. "We've got to build back up to the point, and then go beyond that. What we tried to do was add guys who want that opportunity. We wanted guys that share that vision and passion, and if we weren't quite sure, we weren't interested in you."

Lewis got a taste of it at the height of the Sapp negotiations. It was the day before he signed with Oakland, and Paul Brown Stadium played host to a big NCAA tournament party hosted by Huntington Bank. Here were four area teams off the interstate all in the Big Dance, Cincinnati, Xavier, Kentucky, and Louisville, but all anybody wanted to talk about was if Lewis was going to the After Prom with Sapp.

"That was great. That's the fun of it. That's the feeling we're all trying to get," he said.

Lewis doesn't feel like he has all the pressure on him like he did last year as he took the brunt of being the face of the team both in the community and the locker room. He thinks "we have guys who are taking that off my shoulders,' and he singled out Pro Bowl receiver Chad Johnson, quarterbacks Jon Kitna and Carson Palmer on offense, and linebackers Kevin Hardy and Brian Simmons and tackle John Thornton on defense.

He's got a vision, but he's also tweaking it after seeing it through once. He already plans to spend more time with the defense in the offseason.

"I probably wasn't as involved as much in the offseason. I tried to learn the offense last offseason and keep the pulse of what was going on on defense," Lewis said. "I think as we move forward this offseason, I'll spend a lot more time with the defense. Once we get to training camp, everything is fine that way, but I want to make sure I spend the time with the defense this offseason."

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