One not the loneliest No. on Draft Day

4-27-03, 3:40 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals ended up sitting pretty two days in a row.

On Saturday, while the Vikings passed and the Jets got booed and the Cardinals got second-guessed, the Bengals had the only player signed in the entire 2003 NFL Draft.

On Sunday, they figure to begin the morning with a raft of trade opportunities because they hold the first pick in the fourth round. And because of the Curtis Keaton trade, they get another pick 20 slots later.

Even ESPN's Chris Berman, who usually lights up the Bengals like a Christmas tree on Draft Day, backed off when they emerged from the first three rounds with highly-rated players in USC quarterback Carson Palmer, Iowa offensive lineman Eric Steinbach, and Tennessee wide receiver Kelley Washington.

"You have to look at those three names and think the Bengals did well," Berman said.

If that didn't surprise the faithful, the draft took Palmer a bit unexpected. "Offensively, I don't know what we really need," he said before the picks, but he was in New York and a good thousand miles away from the draft room.

It was a different kind of Draft Day in Bengaland as coaches and scouts arrived Saturday morning focused on the second round. Palmer sat in New York, $40 million richer, but still nervous because cameras make him nervous, as NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue brought him out on the national stage at the Madison Square Garden Theater with the No. 9 jersey Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis gave him on Thursday.

"Every guy backstage was praying, 'Don't let New York draft me because I know I'm going to get booed,' so I'm glad I didn't have to sit there and worry about that," Palmer said.

It was your basic No. 1 draft pick weekend in the city that never sleeps. Up at 6 a.m. Friday for "Good Morning America," then ring the bell to open the New York Stock Exchange, then hit every interview this side of Maury.

The Bengals hope Palmer has a better touch with their fortunes after the market dropped 133 points following the bell.

"They were hoping we would rock the floor and bring some good luck, but I guess we didn't," Palmer said.

Palmer showed why he's more Queen City than Big Apple, admitting he doesn't like being on TV, but realizing, "It's the NFL. It's kind of how it's going to be here from here on out."

There was also the debut of his EA Sports commercial for "Madden NFL 2004." It features Palmer doing pushups while Ravens Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis stretches out his legs on his back.

"He said the one bad thing about going to Cincinnati is that you have to see me twice a year," Palmer said. "And he's right."

Palmer leaves Sunday afternoon to return to California, then he'll head back to Cincinnati in a few days to get here Friday for the start of the club's second voluntary minicamp under Lewis and first with the rookies. And it can't come quicker.

"This is the most time I've been away from football and not been part of a team," he said.

Lewis' team, which also happens to be Marvin Lewis' old team, caught the Bengals' attention when the Ravens traded their first pick in 2004 to the Patriots to get in position to take California quarterback Kyle Boller at No. 19. He noted they put the leverage on restricted free agent quarterback Chris Redman.

"They were going to take a quarterback this year or next year, so why not use next year's pick?" Lewis asked. " Chris had to sign the tender this year because he was a restricted guy. Now they've started working towards the future, so it was a good move. They have a good quarterback for the future and they ended up with a good outside rusher."

With the 10th pick, the Ravens took Arizona State defensive end Terrell Suggs and Lewis chuckled at the high number of tight ends the Bengals have against the high number of rush ends for the Ravens: "We're going to have to line up against them in double tight ends."

Another AFC North rival, the Browns, took one of the players the Bengals were thought to be targeting in the second round when they selected Notre Dame center Jeff Faine at No. 21. Lewis also worked for the Steelers, so it really didn't surprise him when Pittsburgh traded up 11 spots to get USC strong safety Troy Polamalu.

"It was good to know that we had some good evaluations done. We thought very highly of those two players, so it was good to know that we had done the same work they had done," Lewis said. "Pittsburgh jumped up quite a bit to get a safety, and he's one hell of a football player."

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