Updated: 6:35 p.m.
The Bengals didn't get the USC defensive player they had on their mind Saturday, but when they couldn't get defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis they opted for teammate Keith Rivers with the ninth pick in the NFL Draft.
"He's a face of the franchise," said new linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald, who extolled Rivers' character as much as his talent.
The Bengals bid for Ellis and Florida defensive end Derrick Harvey got short-circuited by trades that took them off the board at seven and eight, respectively.
"We were looking at four guys there," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis about not trading up with a third-round pick or trading down. "They were all defensive players and all guys we would have liked to have taken. We couldn't move back. If we moved back too far, we would move away from a guy who we feel could be a first-year starter for us."
The four guys? Probably Ellis, Harvey, Rivers and Troy cornerback Leodis McKelvin. So the Bengals were content to take Rivers, making him just the fifth linebacker drafted in the top 10 this decade.
"He's played at a very high level, has great leadership abilities and is really someone who can start and you can mold a group around," Lewis said. "He's had a great deal of starts and has been on a great team for the last three years and really brings a lot to us."
The 6-2, 241-pound Rivers can play all three spots for a linebacker corps that has been decimated by injury and off-field problems the past few seasons. His most natural fit is on the weak side, but he would be replacing the club's most experienced backer in Dhani Jones. The other two projected starters, middle linebacker Ahmad Brooks and strongside Rashad Jeanty, have played in a combined 39 games.
It's a comfortable pick for the Bengals. They need all the help they can get at linebacker and fellow USC products Carson Palmer and Frostee Rucker speak highly of him. They also share the same agents in the David Dunn-Joby Branion firm of Athletes First that got Palmer signed before the draft in 2003, making a training camp holdout seem unlikely.
Palmer, in fact, nearly beat Lewis to the phone to call Rivers and congratulate him.
"He told me I'm what they need," Rivers said. "They've got the offense. They need a little help on defense and that's what I'm trying to do get us to the playoffs."
Palmer, who had taken Ellis in his own mock draft for the Bengals, said, "It's good to have another 'SC guy in the house," and told him to call him any time if he needed anything. P>Rucker, a third-year player who hosted Rivers on his recruiting trip to USC, ended up at Ellis' home in California when the Saints pulled the deal with New England for a third-round pick.
"It looked like he was going to fall into our lap, but that's the way it goes," Rucker said. "Keith is a guy who has a knack for making plays. He wore 55 at 'SC. That says all you need to know. It's a great pick for us. He's a tough, intelligent linebacker."
No. 55 has been worn by great USC linebackers like Junior Seau and Willie McGinest. Brooks wears it for the Bengals, but he might not change a number. He could change a position, though.
The buzz is that in Rivers the Bengals may very well have their immediate starting middle linebacker for the next seven to 10 years, a position where Lewis needs his stability and leadership after suffering with eight different starters since he arrived in 2003.
It would also allow Cincinnati to flank Rivers with Brooks on the strong side and Odell Thurman at weak, two guys that haven't been able to get acclimated to the middle, Brooks because of injury and Thurman because of two one-year league suspensions.
But FitzGerald and new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer offered no clues where they would play Rivers and all the rest of the backers.
"We'll see," FitzGerald said and Zimmer said, age won't be factor in who plays."
Rivers is up for anything, but the Bengals did get a look at him in the middle at the Senior Bowl.
"At the end of the day I played outside linebacker at 'SC for four years, so I'm pretty comfortable playing that," Rivers said. "But as a lot of people saw at the Senior Bowl, I was able to move into middle linebacker and strong-side linebacker and play well," Rivers said. "I'm most comfortable at weak side, but I think I can play all three."
FitzGerald, a NFL linebackers coach for 15 seasons, has never been with a club that drafted a backer so high. He had to see some things to recommend it
"If you're going to take a linebacker in the first round, especially the area where we took him, he's got to do a lot of things well," FitzGerald said. "That's the thing that we analyzed with him. He can do a lot of good things. You look for a foundation of things which you can build upon, things that you're going to teach the linebackers to do to be well-rounded.
"Everything from pass coverage, blitzing, playing the run, having the movement skills and brain to handle what's involved in these responsibilities from an assignment standpoint," FitzGerald said, " and then being a good character person with good work ethic. We're getting a good package with Keith in a lot of different ways for the organization as a whole."
Rivers, a product of Lake Mary, Fla., missed just one game last season (a sprained ankle) and while he had no sacks, he broke up four passes and recovered a team-high three fumbles. But he comes to Cincinnati already being bandied about as a leader.
"My leadership comes from my work ethic and my hard work," Rivers said. "Not only on the field, but I think I'm a quality person and I steer away from bad influences. The leadership is me being accountable for myself on the field as well as off the field.
Rivers' life is literally an open book. He's opened up his draft day in his hometown of Lake Mary, Fla., to the Internet on yardbarker.com, which included a tour Saturday morning of his high school.
One of the more immediate posts came from his linebackers coach at USC, former NFL player Ken Norton Jr. Norton recalled his nickname "Shark," for devouring linebackers.
At the high school Saturday, Rivers' linebackers coach and defensive coordinator at Lake Mary High School, Willie Pauldo, said in a video clip that this "whole career was a big blur," of plays.
"His drive and ambition is what got him here," Pauldo said. "I know who ever drafts him is getting a hell of a kid."
DRAFT NOTES: More Rivers: Looks like he has been sculpted out of granite," says Pro Football Weekly. "Had the most impressive physique of any player at the Senior Bowl."...
With the Rams taking Virginia defensive end Chris Long at No. 2 and the Falcons taking Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan at No. 3 in the NFL Draft Saturday, the longer LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey stayed on the board could help the Bengals snare Ellis at No. 9.
But Dorsey didn't stay long as the Chiefs grabbed him at No. 5, and the Saints surprised no one by swapping the 10th pick with the Patriots at No. 7 and taking Ellis. It was the first trade into the top seven of the draft since 2003.
But it doesn't look like the Bengals are trading wide receiver Chad Johnson or left tackle Levi Jones on Saturday. A source confirmed an NFL Network report that Jones has asked for a trade, but it is not a Johnson situation. Indications are that it is not a demand and although he won't be at the voluntary workouts, Jones does plan to attend the June 12-14 mandatory camp and won't sit out if not traded.
Ken Zuckerman, Jones' agent, had no comment when reached before the draft Saturday and Jones couldn't be reached for comment.
Jones, 28, the 10th pick in the 2002 draft, played well enough that he helped the Bengals set a franchise record for allowing the fewest sacks with 17 and was voted third-team Pro Bowler.
As with Johnson, the Bengals would face a sizeable hit in the salary cap by trading Jones. He signed a six-year, $40 million extension before training camp in 2006 and he's scheduled to make nearly half it by the end of this season.
"If they had a starter getting ready for Baltimore Monday night you would think they'd give them as much work as possible, right?" Jones asked the media after the 2007 preseason finale. "So obviously something else is going on, so maybe you can tell me."
Jones later apologized for his remarks and Zuckerman said he wasn't asking for a trade. But he has now and he's forfeiting about $200,000 in workout bonuses to stay in Arizona this spring.