Who wants No. 1?

3-24-03, 7:30 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

PHOENIX, Ariz. _ At the moment, the Bengals can't give away the No. 1 pick in next month's NFL Draft.

Here is where it stands Monday morning, the first official day of the NFL's annual meeting, 33 days before they go on the clock.

"I talked to Mike (Brown) about it last week," said Texans General Manager Charley Casserly, who holds the third pick. "I told him I'd trade for it, but he'd have to give me something else, too."

Thanks to the salary cap, that is what has become of the No. 1 pick. It's a $60 million bar of plutonium no one wants in a draft that doesn't have a drop-dead quarterback at the top of the board. Who wants to dish out nearly a $20 million signing bonus for a kid who has a better chance of ending up as a trivia question than a Pro Bowler?

Casserly's gag isn't exactly a good harbinger for scrounging up some talks this week at the Arizona Biltmore. If the Bengals can't scare anything up on the veranda, the golf course, or the croquet field with all the people in place to make a deal, forget it.

The Jets, who hold the Nos. 13 and 22 picks in the first round?

"People are trying to get back in this draft, not up," said Jets general manager Terry Bradway. "For (USC quarterback) Carson Palmer to be the No .1 pick in the draft after one good year, that tells you a lot about the whole class, probably."

The Bears, who are reportedly looking for a quarterback at No. 4?

"We aren't driven to move up and take a quarterback and we weren't before we got him," said Bears GM Jerry Angelo of his recent pickup of Kordell Stewart.

Maybe the best shot is Detroit at No. 2, where the Lions are ogling hometown hero Charles Rogers, the big-play wide receiver out of Michigan State. Last week at the Spartans' pro day, Carl Poston, Rogers' agent, enjoyed watching the Detroit braintrust.

"They were nervous when they saw the Bengals

show up with Marvin (Lewis) and everybody else," Poston said. "They were kidding him like, 'OK, Charles, drop this one now.' I think there is a real chance the Bengals could grab him."

But would the Lions give up something to swap spots when Miami wide out Andre Johnson and his sprint champion speed is also available?

Brown and Casserly switched spots 11 springs ago, when Casserly was with the Redskins and the salary cap was just a concept. Casserly wanted to get to No. 5, so the Bengals went from five to six, and got the 28th pick in the first round out of Washington for quarterback David Klingler and free safety Darryl Williams.

But now, in 2003, moving up seems to be the last thing on anyone's mind.

"We can sit at No. 3 and get a good player," Casserly said. "We can get a receiver, a left tackle, a defensive lineman. No matter what happens."

With Laveranues Coles gone to Washington, the Jets could use a young wideout, But not at that price.

"I don't think 13 and 22 is enough to get you to No. 1, and we don't want to go to No. 1, so tell the Bengals we're not interested," Bradway said. "I think you can get up to No. 5, and maybe No. 4 with those two picks. But not No. 1. I don't think there's (a player) anybody wants to go up and get.

"They are good players. I don't think they're great players," Bradway said. "They aren't players you would consider giving up something to go get, unless you have a striking need. We don't have that. We can line up and play tomorrow. We've got starters at every position."

There are some inside the Bengals who think versatile Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman is the best player on the board, and they aren't alone around the league. Others in the emerging consensus of the top handful are Rogers, Johnson, Palmer, Utah left tackle Jordan Gross, Kentucky defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson, and Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich.

But it seems to be a draft room sin to take a non-quarterback No. 1 if you can't trade it. The problem here is that no quarterback is pulling away from the crowd. With Palmer now undergoing the excruciating scrutiny of the frontrunner, the rapid rise of California quarterback Kyle Boller, and Leftwich's workout still two weeks from Monday, there is no clear-cut quarterback choice, and that is another trade killer.

"I can't speak for other teams, but that's what I'm hearing out there. It's clumping up," Angelo said. "It's a good crop of quarterbacks. I think you can probably get him on the first day (in the first three rounds). We're picking at the top of each round, so we'll see how that goes."

The Bengals know they can get an Opening Day starter in spots of need in Rogers, Newman, or Roberston at No. 1. And, get a solid quarterback prospect at the top of the second round. They would probably do that in a second if they knew the right quarterback would be left at No. 33.

Plus, the Bears have the luxury of letting somebody come to them. Like the Bengals, the Bears don't want to commit until they see how well Leftwich's broken leg has healed at his April 7 workout.

A NFL source outside the Bengals disputed one lobby rumor Sunday that they had opened negotiations with both Palmer and Leftwich, and Lewis has maintained they won't make a call until they see Leftwich work out. Although the Bengals have high regard for Boller, it's doubtful he has risen high enough to take over Palmer.

"I told Mike," said Casserly with a smile, "that all he has to do is give me something and I'll take it."

For the moment, out here in the desert, there is not even a rustling of trade winds.

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