Upside down draft

7-22-04, 7:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The former agent for quarterbacks David Klingler and Akili Smith predicts Carson Palmer won't suffer the same fate as his clients and is going to become "a major star in the NFL; an absolute can't miss."

Leigh Steinberg, who has represented many of the NFL's top quarterbacks down through the years, finds himself in the unusual underground position in Cincinnati this week as he negotiates the contract for seventh-round quarterback Casey Bramlet. Steinberg, who represented four of the Bengals' first-round picks in the eight drafts between 1992 and 1999, said Thursday there is a "100 percent chance," Bramlet reports to camp on time.

No cameras. Just clauses.

"It's like the draft is tipped upside down this year," said Steinberg from his Newport Beach, Calif., office. "No, I'm going to have to say (this deal) isn't going to be quite as complicated."

But the landscape is complicated enough that with the bulk of teams reporting to training camp next week, NFL executives and agents are still moving glacially on contracts. As business closed Thursday, less than 70 of the 255 picks were inked and that included only four first-rounders.

The Bengals continued to hammer away at 10 of their unsigned picks, and may be able to get one or two done by Friday. Sixth-rounder Greg Brooks, a cornerback from Southern Mississippi, is the only one signed.

Steinberg can't help wonder if Klingler (1992), defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson (1994), running back Ki-Jana Carter (1995), and Smith (1999), had been selected in this era, maybe they wouldn't be wearing the "bust," or "underachieving," tags.

"I wish the contemporary environment had existed back when I had that string of first picks," said Steinberg, citing changes incorporated by Bengals president Mike Brown and the emergence of his daughter, executive vice president Katie Blackburn, and her husband, director of business development Troy Blackburn.

"Mike has adjusted and the new generation with Katie and Troy is very bright and proficient, and Marvin Lewis is as attractive a head coach as there is in the NFL," Steinberg said. "Players want to play for him. The whole organization has changed (since '99) with a new stadium, a new coach, a new attitude."

Steinberg looks at the weapons surrounding Palmer, and the fact he didn't hold out his rookie year like his clients, and calls it, "like night and day.

"You've got a Pro Bowl-type running game, a Pro Bowl receiver, and Pro Bowl caliber tackles. Who wouldn't want to play for the Bengals?" Steinberg asked. "I think he's going to go through trial and error like any young quarterback. But I think the organization deserves a lot of credit for holding him out for that first year. That shows an incredible amount of discipline and it's going to benefit him greatly."

Klingler and Smith didn't have that luxury. Klingler played only long enough to get sacked 18 times on his first 116 drops. Smith started just four games before missing the last half of the season with a toe injury.

Steinberg admitted the holdouts that wiped out both of their training camps were factors in their failures and thinks the fact that the Bengals already had starting quarterbacks in Boomer Esiason and Jeff Blake, respectively, didn't help his leverage.

But of course there are no such issues with Bramlet, the 6-4, 210-pounder from Wyoming who threw for more than 3,000 yards in three straight seasons despite playing in a tundra. He looks to have the edge as the No. 3 quarterback. With many of his clients sitting before they got a shot, Steinberg isn't disappointed Bramlet went to a team who has the No. 1 pick only a year older than him.

"There are several routes to be a NFL starter and one of them is to go to a team that has superior front-line quarterbacking as a quality backup," Steinberg said. "Perform well when called upon and serve time and tutelage. Mark Brunell, Rob Johnson, Matt Hasselbeck, A.J. Feeley all moved into starting jobs via that route. It's a great career path for a low-round draft pick not ready to challenge anyway."

Steinberg thought Bramlet could have gone a few rounds earlier if he'd been able to play in the Aloha Bowl instead of suffering a slight shoulder injury while surfing. But Steinberg thinks his arm strength that cut through the weather and the even-handed personality that cut through everything else validates him as a good prospect.

Steinberg represents one of the best quarterback prospects of this draft in Miami of Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger, the 11th pick by the Steelers. But he won't be surprised if that isn't done early in this day and age.

Back in 1976, the classic matchup of Steinberg, former Berkeley student leader, and Mike Brown, one of the staunchest defenders of NFL tradition, began when Steinberg represented fourth-round pick Greg Fairchild, an offensive lineman from Tulsa.

Brown picked up Steinberg at the airport on the day of the Ohio presidential primary, long enough ago that Steinberg remembers Brown taking off when approached by someone handing out Jimmy Carter leaflets. So Steinberg has plenty of perspective on why these things took a long time before and after the advent of free agency.

In the current system, he says teams may have enough money in their rookie pool, but not enough under their entire salary cap and have to wait until June to make adjustments and free up money for rookies.

"The institutionalization of the calendar is also a factor," said Steinberg of a relatively recent development. "The set time for minicamps, off-season workouts, voluntary days tends to put the league in cruise control."

But there are also other factors older than the wheel and fire. Teams and agents of non-first round picks are leery of signing before any of the other players near them in the slot.

And, the first rounders are always the last to get in because of the size of the deals. This agent's view is "a $15 million bonus is sitting in the owner's bank account instead of the player's gaining interest. Why do it April 30 when you can do it July 30?" Steinberg asked.

"The rhythm and work pace of NFL executives and agents is dictated pretty much by the nature of emergency and extreme necessity," he said. "Most of the deals happen only when training camp is imminent."

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