QB situation capped off?

4-1-02, 4:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Drew Bledsoe may be warming to the Bengals, but Cincinnati fears some cold, hard moves under the salary cap to accommodate a big salary would hurt the roster.

Plus, all indications are the Bengals continue to covet the 10th pick in this month's NFL Draft as they did when they first approached the Pats about a deal last month for Bledsoe and his $5 million 2002 salary, as reported by "The Boston Herald."

Action on the Bledsoe front appeared to be buzzing Wednesday morning, but only in New England and Buffalo. Contrary to an internet report that said Cincinnati is considering trading its first-round pick for Bledsoe, the Bengals have shown no desire to give up a pick they feel will fill a crying need with a solid starting player who won't paralyze their salary cap with a big rookie signing bonus.

Back home on a quarterback front that now has Jon Kitna No. 1 and injured Akili Smith No. 2, Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau said Smith will get chances in pre-season games to improve his lot if his hamstring allows him.

A new twist to the saga appeared in Monday's editions of "The Boston Globe," where a source said Bledsoe isn't counting out Cincinnati and also said the Patriots quarterback has not told the Bengals he has ruled them out.

"A source within Bledsoe's inner circle," told Globe NFL writer Ron Borges, "He did have his agent, David Dunn, inform them several weeks ago that he was in no hurry to agree to a trade and would not do so until he has seen what else was available to him."

But the Bengals were in a hurry to shore up the NFL's No. 9 defense and used about $4 million of their cap room to sign starting cornerbacks Jeff Burris and Artrell Hawkins

and leading sacker Reinard Wilson. With $3.5 million allocated to the rookie pool, national tabulations give the Bengals about $1 million to spare under the cap.

Bengals President Mike Brown cites tampering rules when refusing to discuss Bledsoe and whether he would try to re-do his contract. On Monday, Brown wouldn't rule out adding a big salary, but indicated it was a longshot.

"It would require drastic surgery here," Brown said. "We would have to lop off a couple of prominent players to make room for a big-salary player and I think that would be a hard thing to do."

Ironically, a player who might have to go is one of the reasons Bledsoe would want to come here in veteran speed receiver Darnay Scott. Scott, 30 when training camp opens, carries a $3.9 million tag under the cap after an up-and-down season that included just two touchdowns.

Or, the new player's contract could be re-done. But with the Bengals holding on to the 10th pick for dear life because they believe they're going to get an impact player at a need spot (cornerback Phillip Buchanon, tight end Jeremy Shockey, strong safety Roy Williams, quarterback Joey Harrington?), it doesn't look like there is going to be a major trade if the asking price is a first rounder.

"If we were going to make a run at a big salary player, we would have made it by now and since nothing has happened along those lines, you can tell we have gone on," Brown said. "We're not going to wait for a bird in the bush.

"If we keep adding solid, good players year after year," said Brown of the draft, "we can build up the core of our team that should make us a winner."

Smith's high draft position is a major reason the Bengals can't or won't give up on him.

"We took Akili Smith near the very top of the draft. We have a high regard for him," said LeBeau of the third pick in the 1999 draft. "We look on developing him as a quarterback talent as one of the requirements of this job and we will continue to do so."

LeBeau admits Smith's injured hamstring makes Kitna the starting quarterback. If Smith is healthy, LeBeau said he'll play frequently in the pre-season games and, "when you look at it, everything is always an open competition, particularly in training camp because the best players play. Period."

But right now, Smith can't play.

"We've got a question with Akili's health," LeBeau said. "Right now, it's Jon. You have to answer it at the time he gets healthy. We thought Akili did a very good job in the New York game and that's the only time we got to see him play. I'd say we have to wait and see. There are varying degrees of health. Is it going to be a thing we want to bring along slowly? I suspect it may be, but it's still important for him to have every ounce of exposure he can get."

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