4-27-03, 1:50 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
First-rounder Carson Palmer is going to end up defining Marvin Lewis' drafts as Bengals' head coach. But the selection of third-rounder Kelley Washington provides the road map for how Lewis is going to build this team for the next five years or so.
At the top of the third round Saturday, the Bengals stared at Tennessee's Washington, an intoxicating but flawed talent deemed undraftable by some NFL teams because of last November's neck surgery. A first-round talent with a low-round medical.
Also staring at them were two players who fit immediate needs in Texas' Cory Redding, a big defensive end, and Hawaii's Vincent Manuwai, an experienced pass-protecting guard.
But Washington ran sub 4.4-second 40-yard dashes at his workouts. He played four years in professional baseball. He was a high school quarterback. On tape, he outmuscled outjumped people for the ball.The kid just had too many qualities Lewis covets. Speed and athleticism will get him every time.
"As you watch him on tape, (he's) a big guy who can just flat run," Lewis said. "That was something we felt we could get — a guy who can run not only vertically but also could catch and run the football after the catch. (He's) a tremendous athlete, (and) was a quarterback in high school."
There it is. Which is why the defensive guru waked out of his first Draft Day as a head coach with no defensive players. Which didn't surprise offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski.
"I think it goes in line with what Coach Lewis said from the beginning," Bratkowski said. "He doesn't want to reach or jump to positions to fill needs. He wanted to take what was deemed the best player left on the board. It just so happened that the second and third picks were offensive players."
It also just so happens the 6-3, 220-pound Washington fills a need as a speed merchant to team opposite the club's other speed receiver, Chad Johnson. Bratkowski opened the most competitive spot on the team by putting Washington in the same position with Peter Warrick, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Ron Dugans for the second wide receiver job. In three wide-receiver sets, when Warrick goes in the slot, Washington goes against Dugans, Houshmandzadeh, and Danny Farmer.
And it's not a slouch field. Four of the incumbents had at least 40 catches last season and one of them, Dugans, just signed a one-year tender of $605,000. Which means he could be headed to free agency next year. Farmer is also eligible. The Bengals will probably keep six wideouts on their roster because of the plethora of three-receiver sets.
Washington turns 24 in training camp and has played less than 20 college football games after spending four seasons at third base and shortstop in the Marlins' organization hitting .213. And he played in just four games last year plagued by knee and neck injuries.
But in 2001, he also became just the fourth player in Tennessee history to catch more than 1,000 yards (1,010) in becoming SEC Freshman of the Year. And he still had three 100-yard games last season.
"I've only played two years of wide receiver, but it's a tremendous upside," Washington said. "Whenever I've played, I've produced. I'm a very hungry football player and a very talented football player."
Washington said he hurt his neck on a whiplash play against Georgia and he developed a bone spur. He says he's getting the green light after two combine checks and the MRIs came up good. Bratkowski said the Bengals discussed it with their doctors when they began sketching out the third round a few days ago. They got the OK then, and they got it again Saturday as the pick neared.
"A non-issue at this time," Bratkowski said.
Bengals receivers coach Alex Wood, the head coach at James Madison University when he tried to recruit Washington out of Stephens City, Va., lost him to the 10th round of the June, 1997 amateur baseball draft. It all came rushing back to Wood when he saw him work out.
"I've seen two times on him — 4.35 and 4.38 (second) 40-yard dash," Wood said. And out of all the receivers, he probably had — other than Taylor Jacobs — the most impressive workout for the scouts out of all the receivers around the country."
Washington admits he's confident. He says he's got the ability to stretch the field with his speed, but he's also physical enough to go across the middle. He said he knew when it was time to get out of baseball.
"How many 6-3, 220-pound baseball players are there?" Washington asked. "And how many 6-3, 220-pound(ers) who run 4.4 in the world are there? Reality kind of set in."
How many? For the Bengals on Saturday in the third round, the answer was one.
And it was enough.