4-10-02, 5:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The future cast a 375-pound shadow at Paul Brown Stadium Wednesday in the form of Texas tackle Mike Williams.
Williams, in town for a physical, probably won't be there when the Bengals make the 10th pick in next week's NFL Draft. But the protector of lefty Chris Simms' blindside represents the side of the Bengals' draft room where club president Mike Brown aligns.
Do they sacrifice immediate needs at tight end and safety in the first two rounds to satisfy the long-term needs at the higher valued positions of left tackle and quarterback? Or do they go for broke this year and trade that first-round pick for a franchise quarterback to put a team on the verge over the top? Or use it on collegiate game-breakers such as Miami of Florida tight end Jeremy Shockey or Oklahoma safety Roy Williams to upgrade the club's weaker positions right now?
"That's not only an argument you hear from fans, you also hear it inside this building," Brown said Wednesday. "I tend to be a long-haul type. We have a lot of different ways to go and some require more patience than others. I think you use the draft for not only next year, but for the future."
That's not to say Brown will come down like that on April 20, or even win the debate. But with starting left tackle Richmond Webb (35) and backup John Jackson (37) combining for more than twice the age of the franchise, "our tackles are experienced and then some," Brown said. "The fact is, unless you draft (a left tackle) early, it's very unlikely you're going to get one. That becomes something to think about."
On Thursday, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said he doubts a trade would be made before Draft Day for quarterback Drew Bledsoe, a player continually linked to the Bengals in published reports.
Joby Branion, one of the agents for Williams and Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington (as well as Bledsoe) said his instinct is both Williams and Harrington will be gone by the time the Bengals pick. Williams has already visited Minnesota (picking seventh) and Buffalo (picking fourth), and left Cincinnati Wednesday afternoon for San Diego, owner of the fifth pick. He ends his Dr. Hawkeye Pierce tour with a Carolina team that picks second. Harrington spent the day with the Chiefs as they mull the eighth pick.
Both guys wouldn't play right away for the Bengals and would probably sit their rookie years. But they are looking at them.
Williams is making the rounds to show interested teams that the most famous knee in the draft is fine. Indeed, Brown pronounced Williams "sound," and said, "we liked the report we got on his leg."
In the month since rumors started at the NFL scouting combine, David
Dunn, one of Williams' agents, has produced a letter from Dr. Carey Windler of Austin Sports Medicine . It says Williams suffered a hyperextension-type injury to the right knee and "he missed no practices and missed no games. . .both knees demonstrated stable knees with no pathologic ligaments laxity. . .His current status would indicate that both knees are at a normal functional level with intact functional anterior cruciate ligaments. . . "
The 6-5, 375-pound Williams has never played left tackle at any level, only right tackle, but. . .
"I protected the blindside for two years and I think I can do that here," said Williams, who is a coordinated enough athlete to be seen frequently blocking far down field.
The scouts worry about the fact he loves to eat and hope he would get down to 340 pounds, but he seems to have the right outlook and a pleasant demeanor.
"He's killing me with all this travel," Williams said of Branion with a laugh. "Then when I get back from Charlotte, I go to New York (April 20-21) for the draft. But I don't mind. That kind of money for a player is a big investment and I understand why they want to check it out."
With Williams and Miami of Florida left tackle Bryant McKinnie expected to be gone, the Bengals have to decide where the next three tackles should be taken. Florida's Mike Pearson, Arizona State's Levi Jones, and Boston College's Marc Colombo are the other guys the gurus think can be 10-year answers on the left side. Some mock drafts have them all going in the first 44 picks. The Bengals pick No. 41 in the second round.
"We have to decide how much we like these guys and rate them," Brown said. "Are they the first of the lot in the first round, or the second round? The middle? Late? It's the same five names, but you could ask every team in the league and get a different ranking on them."
In the end, the Bengals may not go the long-term route. But they will when it comes to accounting for their rookie pool, which is probably going to be about $3.5 million for the 2002 crop.
Most of the rookies don't count under the salary cap because the NFL only registers the top 51 players by cap count. But that changes on Opening Day of the regular season, when all 53 players count.
"We have to plan for that. You can't pretend it's going to be any different on Sept. 8," Brown said. "It gives you more room in the offseason, but you eventually have to get there."