Updated: 3:30 p.m.
With the help of the murky labor situation, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis succeeded Monday in not tipping his team's hand for the NFL Draft that begins Thursday night with the first round.
With Auburn quarterback Cam Newton expected to go to Carolina No. 1, the Bengals are holding a huge pick with Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert expected to be on the board. Steve Wyche of NFL Network calls it the pivotal point of the draft with the Bengals' pick driving the next 30 or so selections as the quarterback situation unfolds.
Lewis confirmed in his pre-draft news conference what we already knew. The Bengals have worked out the top quarterback prospects, but he also said they won't be forced into taking a quarterback in the first two rounds even though there has been no change in the Carson Palmer situation as owners and players prepared for a federal judge's ruling expected Monday on the status of the lockout.
After the club worked out TCU's Andy Dalton and Florida State's Christian Ponder last Friday in Texas, Lewis also confirmed the Bengals have worked out Gabbert. It's believed they worked him out three weeks ago on the same trip they visited Auburn's Cam Newton, the other quarterback candidate the Bengals appear to be mulling at No. 4.
That means along with Ryan Mallett of Arkansas they've visited and/or hosted five of the top candidates. There was no need to work out and host Washington's Jake Locker and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick because the Bengals coached them for a week at the Jan. 29 Senior Bowl.
"We've evaluated quarterbacks but I don't think we're forced into any situation any way or another," Lewis said. "I think we want to be very, very careful to make sure we make the picks that we make and we get the value for the picks where we're making them. Unfortunately we're picking too high this year at No. 4, and there comes a great value with that pick and we want to make sure in every pick that we make that we that we get a player that meets that value and we feel real good about him in that particular slot. I think that's quarterback, whatever it may be."
Among the players available at No. 4 could be the consensus top two players, Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green and Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller. The other top players that have higher grades than Newton and Gabbert in most media circles are LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson and defensive tackles Marcell Dareus of Alabama and Nick Fairley of Auburn.
As usual, Lewis wouldn't rule out a trade and as usual he said it's doubtful they'll get any serious suitors. Even though a rookie wage scale is going to be part of the next collective bargaining agreement and drastically cut the pay of the top 10 draft picks, Lewis said that won't jump-start a rash of trades.
"We are not locked into anything. But I don't think you've seen many people clamoring to move to the top of drafts very often," Lewis said. "I don't know that you are going to have (a rookie wage scale) in place prior to Thursday unless you have a crystal ball."
But how far the Bengals are going to go get a guy that can throw any kind of ball, crystal or otherwise, is not only the biggest question for them, but several other quarterback-starved teams parched by a lockout that has frozen free agency and trades. Free agency usually comes before the draft, but no one knows when or what form it is going to arrive as the CBA careens through the courts.
If the Bengals don't come out of the first 35 picks with a quarterback, they have to go into free agency to prevent them from a training camp with the untested Jordan Palmer and untried Dan LeFevour as their quarterbacks.
"Let's not spend all of our time speculating about speculation," Lewis said. "There are a lot of options. It would not be beneficial to the football team to lock ourselves in one way or the other. ... We probably just wasted 30 seconds talking about it."
Lewis says the lack of free agency doesn't hurt the Bengals' ability to mock what other teams are going to do.
"I don't know if it is tougher because the same things are in place that were not in place before," Lewis said of free agency. "If teams had made a move or hadn't made a move, they are still going to go through the draft and evaluate their team where they are today. I think the only difference is in the past had Carolina had the first pick they could have begun negotiating with a player and everybody would have had a feel for who they are going to pick. Right now I am not sure anyone has a clear choice that this is who the Carolina Panthers are going to select at No. 1."
Speculation may be a waste of time for Lewis, but he says the lockout allowed him some quality time in the scouting process that he didn't have when his current players were working out at the stadium.
"I've been able to devote more time to the draft as far as travel time. That's been the one plus that has come out of this," Lewis said. "I have not had to worry about or deal with offseason surgeries and things like that, dealing with a player in-house. I've been able to spend the time traveling to campuses. There are a lot of beautiful campuses out there in college football. I've spent more time that way rather than just with the video. I've actually been able to spend some time with the players on the campus and other people around, like their coaches, which has been a good process for me."