Will any team emerge from this weekend's draft with the kind of rookie bounty that helped propel the New England Patriots to their two recent Super Bowl titles? Well, don't discount the Patriots, arguably the league's most flexible franchise in the draft, staging an encore performance.
And then again, don't overlook Cincinnati, which has been uncharacteristically active in the past few weeks, and which has assembled a potential mother lode of selections. With the second-round choice the Bengals acquired in the trade of tailback Corey Dillon to New England, and the third-round compensatory pick the team received for the defection of linebacker Takeo Spikes in free agency last year, Cincinnati now owns seven picks in first four rounds.
Those four choices in the top 117 picks are a league high. They also represent the chance for second-year coach Marvin Lewis to further place his imprint on the franchise.
Lewis spoke earlier this week about "cycling" players in and out of the system, and he certainly made major alterations on the roster in 2003. Now he has a golden opportunity to add a major influx of youngsters, players who he hand-picks for his style of play, to the Bengals core group for 2004. Look for Lewis, who during his years in Baltimore watched how Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome ran the draft, to make savvy selections.
It is likely that Lewis will concentrate on defense -- the Bengals could use another tackle, a cornerback and more depth at linebacker -- but he is adamant about carefully following the board and not "reaching" simply to fill a need.
With only two quarterbacks on the roster, the Bengals figure to invest one of those first seven choices on a signal-caller. Even though Cincinnati this week signed former starter Jon Kitna (slated to serve as the backup to Carson Palmer) to a one-year extension, the club will need to develop a younger player to eventually serve as the backup.
Basically, the reworking of Kitna's contract only ensured his services for this season and left open the very real possibility that, despite the extension through '05, the seven-year veteran could be gone after this year. The team turned $2.375 million of his scheduled $3.375 million base salary for 2004 into a signing bonus and reduced Kitna's base salary to $1 million. That moved saved Cincinnati nearly $1.2 million in '04 cap funds.
But the "extension" season, the 2005 campaign, is a pricey one. Kitna is slated to earn a base salary of $3 million, is due a $1 million roster bonus in the spring of '05, and carries a stiff cap charge of $5.187 million for next year. Translation: Despite the extension, Kitna will either have to restructure again next season or probably be released.
Which is why the Bengals will seek another young quarterback this weekend.
Draft notes from around the NFL
The fate of New York Giants starting quarterback Kerry Collins is likely to be determined by whether the team deals up to land Eli Manning with the top pick. If the Giants figure out a way to get Manning, there is a strong likelihood Collins would be traded or released. In either scenario, Collins, who is entering the final year of his contract, would count $1.954 million against the Giants' cap for 2004, but the team would recoup $7 million in space, the amount of his base salary.
But if the Giants don't deal up for Manning, and instead stay at the No. 4 slot in the first round and choose quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, then New York might attempt to keep Collins for an additional year or two with an extension.
The rationale: The Giants brain trust seems confident Manning could step right into the starter's spot, and removing Collins would expedite that. On the flip side, the Giants feel Roethlisberger will require some apprenticeship time and would need Collins to bridge the gap until the former Miami (Ohio) star is prepared to ascend to the top spot.
Trade discussions continue, but don't look for Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch, whose career remains in limbo, to be traded to Green Bay as part of the weekend's proceedings.
The Packers are offering Couch a multiyear deal worth roughly $2.2 million-$2.3 million over the first two years, with less than $1 million of that for 2004. Couch's contract with the Browns, who will likely be forced to eventually release him if a trade isn't struck, is to pay him a base salary of $7.6 million for 2004 and $8 million for 2005.
Word is that Couch is willing to take his chances, see how the draft shakes out, and hope that some team doesn't get the quarterback it targeted. Such a team, Couch surmises, might then turn to him.
This is the second year in a row in which there has been an inordinate amount of time between the end of the combine and the start of the draft. By the time commissioner Paul Tagliabue strides to the podium Saturday to announce the initial selection, 60 days will have passed since the scouts turned off the lights at the combine. Last year, it was 61 days between the combine and the draft. So what's the big deal? Only this: It seems that when personnel directors have too much time on their hands, they tend to overanalyze the draft, looking for every wart on every prospect. "You want to turn over every stone," said one college scouting director, "but sometimes enough is enough." In the four drafts 1999-2002, the average span between the end of the combine and the start of the draft was just 51 days. There was a spread of just 47 days in the 2000 and 2002 drafts.
Given the surprising number of trades already consummated this offseason, with several deals involving high-profile veterans, there could be some old-fashioned bartering during the draft as well.
As indicated earlier in the week, the Jacksonville Jaguars are dangling strong safety Donovin Darius, who has been absent from the team's offseason workouts. Jacksonville would like to parlay Darius and a trade choice into a deal to move higher in the first round. Failing that, the Jaguars probably will lower their expectations, and dump Darius even on the second day of the draft, for a middle-round choice.
The New York Jets are once again shopping backup tailback LaMont Jordan in some trade talks, reportedly with the Oakland Raiders. The Jets included Jordan in a package offered to Washington earlier in the offseason for cornerback Champ Bailey. Every year, it seems, Jets officials promise to get the hard-running Jordan increased playing time, and every year they fail. It might be time now for a change of scenery.
North Carolina State quarterback Philip Rivers has decided not to attend the draft in New York and instead will spend the day with his family. Rivers had been invited to Madison Square Garden after Pitt wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald declined the league invitation to come to Manhattan, also preferring to be with family and friends.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, who covet Rivers but fear he won't last until their 11th overall choice, have been speaking to teams ahead of them about moving up in the first round. Steelers officials have spoken to Detroit, but the Lions will only consider sliding down if all of their targeted players are already chosen.
The ever-cryptic Oakland Raiders, with the second overall choice, are the subject of several trade rumors, and might have more action going at the No. 2 spot than the San Diego Chargers do at No. 1.
At least one team, the Cleveland Browns, wants to move to the second spot to snatch Iowa left offensive tackle Robert Gallery. And there is a team that wants the second slot for wideout Larry Fitzgerald.
Word is that, for the right price, Oakland will drop back in the first round, but not too far. Then again, the Raiders could stand pat and take Gallery themselves. As much sense as that makes, considering Oakland's need for an influx of young offensive linemen, it would be out of character. In the last five drafts, the Raiders have selected just two offensive linemen in the top five rounds.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.