Up front questions about No. 1

2-21-03, 6:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

INDIANAPOLIS _ This is Warren Sapp's draft.

They either play at his old school, like Miami's William Joseph, or play with his trademark intensity, like Kentucky's Dewayne Robertson, or call out teammates, like Penn State's Jimmy Kennedy.

But as if to honor Tampa Bay's Super Bowl defensive front with maybe the deepest defensive line crop ever, they are all wreak-havoc-in-the backfield defensive linemen.

Which means, maybe this isn't Carson Palmer's draft after all.

Here is Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis holding the first pick in the draft, just two years removed from dominating the NFL with two linchpins in the Baltimore middle named Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa.

"I've thought about that," said Kennedy, who has allowed himself to dream about going No. 1 since he is probably the first lineman to go.

"He's a defensive guy and they won the Super Bowl with the offense struggling a little bit. Possibly he'll go defense, I feel they're really high on Carson Palmer. Not taking anything away from Carson Palmer, or trying to get myself, out there. (But) that's all I've been hearing is Carson Palmer."

Now hear this. Defensive line is a huge priority for Lewis, both philosophically and when he puts tape on a suddenly thin group that needs bodies.

"If you can get athletic guys that stay on their feet, it keeps the integrity of the defense alive," Lewis said. "By staying on your feet, it keeps guys off the second level. . .Obviously, a lot of athletic guys are real good pass rushers. It's easier for them to recognize run to pass and then make the conversion to rush."

But because this year's field is so deep, this finally might be the draft the Bengals can grab a young, impact defensive lineman to play either tackle or end without using a top five pick. Jerry Jones, the former Cincinnati pharmacist who publishes the draft publication, "The Drug Store List," thinks defensive tackles Jonathan Sullivan of Georgia and Rien Long of Washington State, and Oklahoma State defensive end Kevin Williams could very well be there when the Bengals pick at the top of the second round at No. 33.

Bills General Manager Tom Donahoe doesn't have a pick until the middle of the second round thanks to the Drew Bledsoe trade, and he thinks he can get a good lineman.

"Last week when we had our draft meetings, it seemed like we talked about defensive line for a long time," Donahoe said. "It's usually a short list, but this year there are a lot of names."

The big names are Kennedy and Joseph, but Robertson is flying up the board quickly and pushing them after coming out a year early.

"I didn't decide until kind of late in the season and I don't think many people knew about me," Robertson said.

Kentucky defensive coordinator John Goodner, who coached future NFL linemen Santana Dotson and Daryl Gardener at Baylor, knew what was coming, largely because of solid intangibles.

"Dewayne can be as good as he wants to be," Goodner told The Associated Press before the season. "The best defensive lineman in the country if he stays healthy."

Even though it's a deep field, just the rarity of a big, quick man who can blow up offenses makes teams think about taking them as early as possible. Like Sapp, they can set a tone for a team with not only play, but personality.

Take the 6-4, 322-pound Kennedy. He calls himself 'a monster," and if he doesn't work out four times a day, he feels terrible. By the time we've had the first coffee break of the morning, he's already worked out twice after getting up at 4:30.

"I don't have a job," he shrugged.

Kennedy took some heat early last season for uninspiring stats and some thought he got outshoved against the run at times after losing 22 pounds in the offseason. His weight fluctuations have some worried, but he's at the top of the draft board with size and speed, along with the great work ethic and charisma.

Here's a guy who can't wait to head slap teammate Larry Johnson in a game because he was always told never to hit the running backs in practice. When Penn State coach Joe Paterno asked Kennedy to become more vocal, he woke up the echoes and got on the guys playing behind him, reminding them this is, after all, "Linebacker U."

If it sounds like Kennedy thinks he should be considered for the No. 1 pick, he does. If it sounds like Lewis isn't totally sold on taking a quarterback like Palmer No. 1, he isn't.

But publicly, it's a lock. The current fan poll on the NFL.com home page asks what the Bengals should do with the No. 1 pick, and 38 percent say take a quarterback, 32 percent say trade it, and only 15 percent say go for defense.

But they're going to have to get linemen somewhere. Lewis said bluntly, "We've got to play better," up front. With the anchor, tackle Oliver Gibson, coming off a torn Achilles, Lewis is trying to "shore up the troops there. Justin (Smith) is a young guy. Tony (Williams) is an improving guy."

It's doubtful 35-year-old starting left end Vaughn Booker is going to be back, but Lewis hasn't been told he'll retire and agent Richard Katz said last week he plans to play out the last two years of his contract. Booker is scheduled to make $2 million this year, but they would absorb about a $1 million hit if they cut him.

Plus, the man who started 11 games last year for the oft-injured Booker, Bernard Whittington, is a free agent.

With much of the line in flux, they are taking a look at guys like the 6-4, 295-pound Joseph. He's as quiet as Kennedy is loquacious, but he'll tell you he's a run-stuffer, a pass rusher, and he can play end, too, if needed.

"I can do it all," he said.

He certainly is the All-American story. His parents are Haitian immigrants who have to be told what's going on by their daughters whenever they attend a game. While he grew up in the "Little Haiti," section of Miami, both parents worked cleaning hotel rooms. He opted for computer games instead of venturing outside where he says there were, "Drugs, shooting, killing."

He could have had the house he plans to buy for his parents last year, but he decided to stay at Miami and get his degree because he was the first one in the family to go to college. Some think he may have slid in the ratings a bit because he had such a good year in '01, but he still logged a Sappian 15 tackles for a loss.

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