Bengals audition former Browns QB Couch

Even as the Cincinnati Bengals strive this year to secure the franchise's first division title since 1990, the team may also be peeking ahead a bit to the future.

Cincinnati on Tuesday auditioned former Cleveland Browns quarterback Tim Couch, the top overall selection in the 1999 draft, ESPN.com confirmed. It does not appear a deal is imminent but, with franchises soon permitted to begin signing future free agents for the 2006 season, the Bengals may have been performing some due diligence.

Couch, 28, underwent extensive surgery on his right shoulder in February and is believed to be fully recovered. The six-year veteran has not appeared in a regular-season contest since the end of the 2003 campaign.

The Bengals' quarterback depth chart is currently solid, with emerging star Carson Palmer as the starter, experienced veteran Jon Kitna as the primary backup and second-year pro Craig Krenzel in the No. 3 spot. But Kitna, a nine-year veteran whose résumé
includes 79 career starts, is eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring and could attract several suitors if he opts not to remain in Cincinnati behind Palmer.

If Kitna were to depart, the Bengals would probably seek an experienced quarterback to replace him, and Couch might be a candidate.

In five seasons with the Browns, who made him the top pick in 1999, Couch completed 1,025 of 1,714 passes for 11,131 yards, with 64 touchdown passes and 67 interceptions for a 75.1 passer-efficiency rating in 62 appearances, with 59 starts. The former University of Kentucky star was released in the spring of 2004 and signed with the Green Bay Packers but was cut toward the end of camp, after his shoulder problems precluded him from getting much preseason work.

Couch filed an injury grievance against the Packers, subsequently settled it and then underwent February surgery to repair tears to his rotator cuff, labrum and biceps. This summer, Couch told ESPN.com that he would be willing to accept even a No. 3 job on a depth chart just to get back into the league. Money will not be a factor for Couch, who has already earned $33 million in bonuses and salaries and approximately $5 million in endorsements during his career.

Teams can begin signing free agents for 2006 on Jan. 2, one day after the end of the 2005 regular season.

Ironically, the last regular-season game in which Couch appeared was at Cincinnati on Dec. 28, 2003; he completed 9-of-18 passes for 115 yards in a Browns victory.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.