By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Efforts to fill holes in a 2-14 team will intensify this week, when coach Marvin Lewis leads the Bengals' contingent to the annual scouting combine of draft-eligible players in Indianapolis.
The expanded combine will run from Tuesday through Feb.24. Participating players will perform a variety of drills - including the 40-yard dash and bench press - and subject themselves to physical inspections and a series of personal interviews with interested teams.
Free agency will begin the following Friday, Feb.28, and the one-two punch of free agency and the April 26-27 draft is how the Bengals - and the 31 other NFL teams - will try to improve their rosters.
The Bengals, Lewis said, have many needs. Although he has named Jon Kitna his starter to open the season, Lewis began at quarterback when asked where his team needs to improve.
"Either by guys here or through the draft or free agency, we're going to continue to upgrade the future at quarterback and bring a competitive situation in there," Lewis said.
The Bengals might use their first overall pick to select one of the top two quarterbacks available - Southern Cal's Carson Palmer or Marshall's Byron Leftwich.
Or the Bengals could trade down to acquire an additional high-round pick. The Chicago Bears, depending on whether they pursue Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart, an expected salary-cap victim, could be a trading partner.
"We're not totally in control of a trade, so that is speculative," Lewis said.
The Bears draft No.4 overall.
"Secondly, right now we don't have a fullback under contract," Lewis said in reference to pending free agents Lorenzo Neal and Nicolas Luchey.
The possibility of Neal re-signing with the Bengals increased after he and Lewis talked, and Neal is now negotiating with the team - a scenario he scoffed at after the season finale in Buffalo.
Another free agent is center Rich Braham. The Bengals have the rights of first refusal on any offer sheet Braham might sign. Lewis said the interior of the offensive line - center and guards - is a place "we've got to deal with."
Despite improvement from the team's wide receivers, Lewis is looking for more competition at that position.
"This is a game that if you can't get the ball vertically downfield in the passing game, you're going to struggle," he said.
Chad Johnson emerged last season as the Bengals' top receiver, and the club wants another player with his type of speed.
Lewis mentioned Michigan State junior Charles Rogers - the most highly rated wide receiver in the draft - as the type of high-impact player the Bengals would need to acquire with the first overall pick.
"There are a few guys who have that kind of ability, who have a chance to be a significant upgrade and future Pro Bowl guys," Lewis said of Rogers and other prospects. "With that first pick, you've got to pick an impact guy."
Lewis made his name as one of the league's top defensive coordinators for the past three seasons - and the Bengals' defense will get much of his attention. Last season, the defense was 17th in total yards allowed (329.1 per game) and last in points allowed (28.5 per game).
"We've got to upgrade the defensive line. That goes without saying," Lewis said. "We had some guys who had injuries there, and we'd like to upgrade there either through free agency or the draft or both."
Defensive tackle Oliver Gibson was lost for the last seven games with a torn Achilles tendon, and defensive end Vaughn Booker was inactive for 10 games with a variety of injuries.
The top defensive tackle in the draft is Penn State's Jimmy Kennedy. The top two defensive ends are Miami's Jerome McDougle and Arizona State junior Terrell Suggs, a former teammate of the Bengals' 2002 first-round pick, left tackle Levi Jones.
Another possible first-round pick for the Bengals, if they decide to trade down, could be Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman.
"We have to upgrade at corner and safety," Lewis said. "We have some young guys who were picked last year at safety (free safety Lamont Thompson, second round; and strong safety Marquand Manuel, sixth round)."
Thompson, especially, will be a project of promoted defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle.
The incumbent starters at cornerback are Artrell Hawkins and Jeff Burris, a former Indianapolis Colt who struggled in his first season with the Bengals.
The combine is NFL teams' first opportunity to talk directly with draft prospects.
"I think you like to watch the guy compete," Lewis said. "You like to see him around other people. Again, when you sit down with them for those six, seven, nine, 10 minutes, you (the player) almost have to be a moron to screw that up.
"The more attention to detail and time you can spend, the more intelligently you can look at his resume."
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