Bengals' Lewis faces tough job with Palmer's future unclear

INDIANAPOLIS -- It is hard to imagine a coach with a larger quarterback quandary than the one Marvin Lewis faces with the Bengals.

And the most bizarre part of the story is, unlike several of Lewis' NFL peers, the coach has a capable starter under contract.

Lewis isn't the Titans' Mike Munchak, who has no idea who his quarterback will be in his first year as a head coach, or Ron Rivera, who faces the same dilemma as a rookie head coach taking over the Panthers. He isn't like Leslie Frazier, who has no clear answer at the position as he prepares for his first full season at the helm of the Vikings, or like Ken Whisenhunt, who is still looking to adequately fill the Kurt Warner void in Arizona.

Lewis shouldn't be in this predicament. He should be preparing for the 2011 season knowing that Carson Palmer is his guy, period. But he can't because Palmer so desperately wants out of Cincinnati.

Bengals owner Mike Brown insists he won't give into Palmer's trade demands, because that isn't the way he operates. Palmer apparently would rather retire than continue to wear stripes on his helmet, even though the team has hired a quarterback-friendly offensive coordinator in Jay Gruden.

So what is Lewis to do about this? He made it clear at the NFL Scouting Combine that he has to proceed through the offseason as if he won't have Palmer. Is that his way of calling Palmer's bluff on retirement? Possibly. But it is no way to run a team.

Functioning in a we-won't-have-Palmer frame of mind figures to be a whole lot easier said than done. It's hard to imagine that the Bengals would enter the draft expecting to find an immediate replacement for Palmer, even if they were to invest their No. 4 overall pick on a quarterback. This year's quarterbacking crop has a clear star, Auburn's Cam Newton, but whether it will produce a passer who could come close to performing as well as 2010 top overall pick Sam Bradford did in becoming Offensive Rookie of the Year with the Rams seems like a long shot. All of the quarterback prospects from this crop have significant flaws, some larger than others. Newton had one great collegiate season and a shaky combine performance.

Newton's status yet to be written

Everyone seems to have an opinion about Cam Newton, but certain questions have to be answered if he's going to make a successful NFL transition, says Michael Lombardi. **More ...**

Still, if Newton slips past the Panthers and the Bills at No. 3, the Bengals could very well be tempted to take him. If Palmer hated his situation in Cincinnati before, one could only imagine his reaction to a high-profile rookie being added at his position. He probably wouldn't be that much happier if the Bengals waited until Round 2 to grab a QB.

The other potential headache for Lewis is, absent a collective bargaining agreement, the Bengals won't be able to acquire a quarterback through free agency or a trade. That could leave them looking at the draft to make a serious quarterback decision, which could very well involve serious money, rather than first exploring other options such as Philadelphia's Kevin Kolb or Green Bay's Matt Flynn.

The best option of all would be for Palmer to remain a Bengal and start.

Is he great? No. Can he be solid? Absolutely. Could he ever be great? Maybe.

Those are some of the questions that have to be eating at Lewis in a situation that puts him at a tremendous disadvantage.


» The presumed wealth of talent in this year's defensive tackle class has multiple prospects wondering if they can be the next Ndamukong Suh, who went from No. 2 overall pick to 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year with the Lions.

As incredibly dominant as Suh was for most of his rookie season, it is hardly farfetched to think that another interior defensive lineman could be selected in the same slot and have the same -- or at least similar -- success.

Someone like, say, Alabama's Marcell Dareus?

Although Dareus does a fairly good job of staying grounded, he does have a great deal of confidence in his abilities. For one thing, as he told me during an interview on Sirius NFL Radio here, he sees himself as "the most versatile D-lineman" in the draft. Many scouts believe he could be highly successful whether he was lined up at tackle or end, depending on the scheme and the players around him.

Dareus also draws a tremendous amount of incentive from Suh's rookie success.

"Well, of course, it would really cause me to push myself," Dareus said. "Just seeing that he went out there and made an impact on the league, I'm looking at myself (and saying), 'Why can't I do it?' If you have the mindset that you can do it, you can go out there and push yourself and be (successful).

» Defensive end/outside linebacker Sam Acho realizes he drew a good deal of favorable attention by registering 17 sacks in his final two years at Texas. He acknowledges that he models his game after former Texas teammate and Washington Redskins standout Brian Orakpo, who has 19.5 sacks in his first two NFL seasons.

But Acho also understands that, with the draft's considerable quality and depth on the defensive line, he needs personnel evaluators to be convinced he is capable of doing much more than producing sacks.

"The defensive end position is big on sacks and getting to the quarterback, but it's more than that," Acho told me on Sirius. "It's also about pressuring the quarterback, even if you don't get a sack, and also about stopping the run. You never want to be a guy that only plays on third downs, which I wasn't. I was a guy that played on all four downs, including special teams, and I was a guy that stopped the run on first and second down and rushed the passer on third down."

Wherever this bright, high-character kid is drafted -- and most projections have him as a middle-round choice -- he figures to make a solid contribution somewhere.

Combine top performers

Draft prospects in Indianapolis are doing their best to impress NFL teams in a variety of drills and workouts at the combine. Keep track of who stands out with some impressive numbers. **Results...**

» The labor uncertainty hardly seems to be a concern for most, if not all, of the college prospects attending the combine. Several of whom I spoke with over the past few days pretty much shrugged off the topic, saying they either had given it no or little thought. They're keeping their focus where it should be: Performing at the highest possible level here and at other pre-draft workouts.

The perspective drives home the point that would-be NFL players, even those projected to be upper-tier selections, are very different than actual NFL players because everything they're doing is on schedule. Only the actual NFL players would notice how different things would be if things were to come to a screeching halt.

» Regardless of what did or didn't happen concerning reports of multiple player agents being booted and/or handcuffed and booted after obtaining inside access to the combine, here's the important thing to remember: Agents are kept away from the prospects so as to avoid the possibility (OK, likelihood) of their recruiting or perhaps even stealing clients.

Some of the 329 combine participants already have agents, but some don't and there are others who might very well be persuaded to switch representation if they were able to gain access they might not be able to reach under other circumstances. I'm not saying that client recruiting or stealing was anyone's intention at any point during this or any other combine. I'm not saying that agents shouldn't be able to do what they do, which is sign up clients.

What I am saying is that the combine should never be the place where something like that happens, and agents are clearly kept at a distance here with that in mind. Otherwise, there could easily be all-out chaos within the mostly serious business of this ultra-high-profile job fair.

» How's this for a movie review? One night during the combine, new Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden -- brother of former NFL coach and current ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden -- decided to go out to a movie alone. He chose "Hall Pass." He left before it was over.

If Gruden uses footballs to rate movies (and why wouldn't he?), I'm guessing he might have given that one a deflated pigskin.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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