Sunday, April 18, 2004

Bengals' picks hard to predict


Defense is likely focus, but QB, RB may be needed, too

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Bengals earned the 17th overall pick in the NFL draft next weekend with just their second non-losing record in the past 13 years.

And not since 1991 - when they took linebacker Alfred Williams with the 18th selection - had the Bengals been designated to pick that low.

But the Bengals swapped that 17th pick with Denver in the trade that brought cornerback Deltha O'Neal to Cincinnati, and now they will pick at No. 24 overall - the franchise's lowest first-round pick since it took center Dave Rimington at No.25 in 1983. (The Bengals traded the 27th overall pick in 1989 to Atlanta for three lower-round picks.)

Whom the Bengals will take in the first round this year is difficult to figure.

Coach Marvin Lewis has said the team will select the best player available and will not draft to fill a positional need.

A year ago, in Lewis' first draft with the Bengals, the team took the best player available at positions that made a lot of sense - quarterback, guard, wide receiver, cornerback and fullback.

But that cornerback was fourth-round pick Dennis Weathersby, whose football future is uncertain following an auto accident Monday night in which he suffered a head injury. He remains hospitalized in serious condition.

The Bengals were counting on Weathersby to challenge for a starting role, or at least the nickel back spot, after releasing former starting cornerbacks Artrell Hawkins and Jeff Burris.

Trading for O'Neal figures to fill the starter's role, but Weathersby's injury now makes cornerback a legitimate possibility at No. 24. Will Poole of Southern California and Chris Gamble of Ohio State might be available, though the Bengals could wait until Round 2 for a chance to get Arkansas' Ahmad Carroll or Tusculum's Ricardo Colclough.

Defensive tackle is another position where depth is a concern.

Though Lewis wants to see more from Langston Moore, Robinson's former South Carolina teammate whom the Bengals took in the sixth round in 2003, the Bengals reportedly have reached a contract agreement with another disgruntled Denver Broncos player, Daryl Gardener.

Denver will release Gardener on or shortly after June 1, and he figures to play as the third tackle behind starters John Thornton and Tony Williams.

Texas' Marcus Tubbs and Maryland's Randy Starks are two possible first-round defensive tackles who could be available.

Still, at the mercy of the 23 teams picking ahead of them, the Bengals might draft at just about any position other than quarterback at No. 24.

The Bengals addressed several positional needs in free agency.

Middle linebacker Nate Webster, signed on Day 2 of free agency, figures to be a run-stopping force that was missing in 2003. Free safety Kim Herring, also signed on Day 2, is a former Lewis player for Baltimore. Bobbie Williams, signed from Philadelphia, will replace Mike Goff at right guard and should bolster the run game. Wide receiver Patrick Johnson will add depth to the offense and be the top kickoff returner.

The Bengals also re-signed some key players, including starting center Rich Braham, starting strong safety Rogers Beckett and kicker Shayne Graham.

The Bengals have four total picks in the first three rounds on Day 1. They will pick No. 49 overall in the second round and Nos. 80 and 96 in the third round. The 96th pick was the highest compensatory pick awarded by the NFL and was based on the quality of the free agents lost by the Bengals the previous offseason.

The interesting portion of the Bengals' draft will come after Round 1. Beginning with that 49th pick, the Bengals have five of the next 68 selections. They also have their original third- and fourth-round picks (Nos. 80 and 113) and the compensatory pick, and acquired No. 117 overall in the fourth round from Denver in the O'Neal trade.

Lewis, in his most recent comments about the draft during the NFL annual meeting late last month in Florida, was asked at which positions the 96th pick could be used.

"Defensive line, obviously offensive line, wide receiver, cornerback, linebacker," Lewis said.

Players at any of those positions could be drafted on Day 1.

The Bengals might even land another pick or two late in Day 1 or early in Day 2 if they are able to trade unhappy running back Corey Dillon or demoted quarterback Jon Kitna.

Dillon is possibly headed to Oakland, which is the team most in need of an every-down back, for a third- or fourth-round pick.

A Dillon deal would increase the likelihood of the Bengals drafting a running back anywhere in the first three rounds. If they go with a running back in Round 1, there's an outside chance Virginia Tech's Kevin Jones will be available. Florida State's Greg Jones and Michigan's Chris Perry might be there in the second round.

A trade of Kitna is less likely. He would be an excellent backup to Carson Palmer and a dependable replacement should Palmer get hurt or stumble badly.

Still, asked in Florida if the Bengals would trade Kitna - San Diego and San Francisco would be the most likely destinations - Lewis said, "We would consider an offer if it were best for us. We want to keep our football team headed forward."

If Kitna were traded, look for a quick return of free agent Shane Matthews and the potential use of a third- or fourth-round pick on a second-tier quarterback.

NFL Draft

WHAT: 69th annual NFL Draft.

WHERE: The Theater at Madison Square Garden, New York.

WHEN: Rounds 1-3 will begin at noon Saturday and end at approximately 10 p.m. (ESPN noon-7 p.m.; ESPN2 7 p.m.-10 p.m.); Rounds 4-7 will begin Sunday at 11 a.m. and end at approximately 6 p.m. (ESPN 11 a.m.-1 p.m.; ESPN2 1 p.m.-6 p.m.)

On the clock

The first round took four hours, 58 minutes to complete last year, so if each of the 23 teams picking ahead of the Bengals take an average of nine minutes and 20 seconds to make their selection, the Bengals will likely be on the clock at about 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

Round 2 took two hours and 16 minutes to complete, and the third round lasted one hour and 30 minutes.

There will be 255 selections overall, including 32 compensatory choices that have been awarded to 16 teams which suffered a net loss of certain quality unrestricted free agents last year.

Nine lives

The Bengals have nine picks for the second consecutive year. They are:

No. 24 overall in the first round (from Denver);

No. 49 overall in the second round;

Nos. 80 and 96 (NFL compensatory) in the third round;

Nos. 113 and 117 (from Denver) in the fourth round;

No. 144 in the fifth round;

No. 177 in the sixth round; and

No. 208 in the seventh round.

In New York

Miami RedHawks quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be one of seven players at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. The others will be Iowa tackle Robert Gallery, Virginia Tech cornerback DeAngelo Hall, Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning, North Carolina State quarterback Philip Rivers, Texas wide receiver Roy Williams and Miami (Fla.) tight end Kellen Winslow.

Coverage

Check Cincinnati.Com for updates throughout both days. ESPN/ESPN2 will televise the draft in its entirety. On Saturday, ESPN will carry the draft from noon to 7 p.m., when ESPN2 will pick up coverage through the end of Round 3. On Sunday, ESPN will be on the air from 11:00 a.m.-1 p.m., when coverage again will switch to ESPN2 for the remainder of the draft.

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E-mail mcurnutte@enquirer.com




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