The Denver Broncos thought they were smarter than the rest of the league when it came to Maurice Clarett.

They were wrong. And it cost them a third-round draft choice.

It seemed as the NFL draft was approaching in April that the troubled former Ohio State tailback was likely to be selected in the sixth or seventh round. The fifth round seemed like a long shot.

Clarett, after all, hadn't played organized football in two seasons after his failed legal challenge to try to force the NFL to allow him to enter last year's draft -- a year earlier than he was eligible. His Ohio State career had ended amid a string of off-the-field troubles, and he'd been unimpressive in pre-draft workouts. Some observers thought that Clarett might even go undrafted, although his productivity in his one season at Ohio State, in which he led the Buckeyes to a national championship as a freshman, seemed to merit a low-risk, low-money, late-round pick.

Broncos Coach Mike Shanahan, however, took Clarett with the final pick of the third round. It's difficult to assail Shanahan when it comes to evaluating the talent of those who run with a football for a living, given the success of so many tailbacks in the Denver system. But this decision seemed misguided from the outset. You can gamble with a third-round draft choice if you're the New England Patriots, have won three of the past four Super Bowls and are playing with house money. When you haven't won a playoff game since John Elway retired, you should get a reliable player in the third round of the draft.

Now, after a training camp and preseason in which Clarett mostly has been unavailable because of a strained groin muscle, Shanahan is ready to admit his mistake. Clarett, who didn't even play in a single preseason game for Denver, was among the players told Sunday by Broncos officials that they would be released. Each NFL team must trim its roster to 65 players by Tuesday.

The Broncos weren't the only ones who gambled and lost. Clarett and agent Steve Feldman negotiated a rookie contract with the Broncos that included no signing bonus. Clarett's draft slot dictated that he should have received a signing bonus of about $410,000, but he passed that up in favor of an incentive-laden deal that could have been worth as much as $7 million over the next four seasons. Instead, he'll walk away from the Broncos with nothing.

If another NFL club claims Clarett off waivers, that team would inherit the contract that Clarett signed with the Broncos. If Clarett clears waivers, he becomes a free agent able to negotiate a new contract with any club he chooses. The St. Louis Rams were interested in Clarett at draft time, and might be a possibility now.

Benson Finally Agrees . . .

Tailback Cedric Benson, the fourth player selected in the draft, finally agreed to a contract with the Chicago Bears, settling on terms for a five-year deal Sunday. He was the final first-round selection league-wide to agree to a contract.

Talks were at an impasse until Benson made a surprise visit to Halas Hall last week to meet with Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo. From there, negotiations between the Bears and Benson's agent, Eugene Parker, progressed fairly rapidly, and now the Bears must hurry to try to have Benson ready to play some sort of role in the Sept. 11 regular season opener against the Washington Redskins.

Benson's deal apparently includes about $17 million in guaranteed money as part of a deal that could be worth as much as approximately $35 million.

. . . But Bears In Disarray

Even with Benson finally in the fold, the Bears team that will come to FedEx Field to open the season is in disarray. On Sunday, Coach Lovie Smith named rookie Kyle Orton, a fourth-round draft pick in April out of Purdue, the club's starting quarterback entering the regular season.

So the Redskins will be facing a rookie quarterback with only one preseason start -- this week's upcoming exhibition-season finale. Last season, things went badly for the Bears when they were forced to use a rookie fifth-round draft choice, Craig Krenzel, as their starter. Orton has looked good during this preseason, but he's yet to play against an NFL starting defense.

The Bears, stunningly, left themselves short-handed at quarterback for a second year in a row when they failed to sign a dependable veteran in the offseason to back up anointed starter Rex Grossman. Smith and Angelo failed to learn from last season's mistake, when the offense fell apart after Grossman suffered a season-ending knee injury. Now Grossman is out with a broken ankle, and the Bears' season might be over before it even starts.

The Bears expressed confidence in failed former Dallas starter Chad Hutchinson, but his dismal preseason showings have led to him being dropped behind Orton, Jeff Blake (who finally was signed after Grossman got hurt) and Kurt Kittner on the depth chart. He apparently is headed toward being released. He has become this season's version of Jonathan Quinn, one of the quarterbacks who failed miserably last season after Grossman got hurt. Smith and Angelo must cross their fingers and hope that Orton is not this season's version of Krenzel.

Abraham to Report; Simon Looking for Job

The last two unsigned players league-wide among those given the franchise-player tags by their teams in February had their situations resolved quite differently.

The Philadelphia Eagles announced Sunday night that they'd rescinded the franchise tag they'd placed on defensive tackle Corey Simon, severing the club's ties with him and making him an unrestricted free agent.

Simon had refused to sign the one-year, $5.134 million contract that the Eagles had tendered to him as the franchise player. Now he's looking for a job. The Baltimore Ravens attempted to trade for Simon during the offseason, but balked at his demands for a long-term contract. The Buffalo Bills were reported to be interested in him at one point during training camp, but nothing came of it. The Eagles are deep at defensive tackle, and Simon's absence from training camp had been barely a blip on their radar screen.

It's not the first time that the Eagles have cut loose a player by taking the franchise tag off him. They made middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter a free agent in the same way in a bitter contract dispute in 2002. Trotter signed with the Redskins and spent two unhappy, unproductive seasons in Washington, then returned to Philadelphia last year as a minimum-salaried backup and ended up breaking into the starting lineup, reaching the Pro Bowl and helping the Eagles to the Super Bowl.

Defensive end John Abraham, meantime, appears poised to report to the New York Jets, perhaps today. He had been refusing to report because he wanted a long-term deal instead of the one-year, $6.666 million contract that the Jets tendered him as the franchise player.

T.O. Excused

The Eagles excused wide receiver Terrell Owens from their charity carnival Sunday after he reinjured his groin muscle in Friday night's preseason victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, according to Coach Andy Reid.

Owens's possible participation in the event had been followed closely in Philadelphia, since refusing to take part in autograph sessions for fans was one of the training-camp transgressions that led to the wideout being banished from the team for a week by Reid.

Owens certainly didn't look hurt Friday, catching five passes for 131 yards in one half of work in his first preseason game this year. He caught a 64-yard touchdown pass from the quarterback to whom he doesn't speak, Donovan McNabb, on the game's first play. Reid said after the game that Owens aggravated the groin injury that had been bothering him in training camp late in the half.

Eagles left tackle Tra Thomas also was excused from the carnival after hurting his lower back Friday. It also was Thomas's first appearance of the exhibition season. He had been plagued by a blood clot in his leg. . . .

Defensive end Jerome McDougle was en route to Philadelphia on Sunday to join the Eagles. He missed all of training camp after being shot in the stomach by armed robbers in Miami last month. The Eagles expect him to be able to play around the fifth or sixth game of the regular season. . . .

The Eagles appear close to completing a long-term contract with tailback Brian Westbrook, who held out early in training camp. He is signed to the one-year, $1.43 million deal that the club tendered to him this past offseason when he was a restricted free agent. He would be eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring if he doesn't sign a new deal with the Eagles. . . .

Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis made no excuses for his team Friday after the Eagles starters built a 27-3 lead at halftime.

Asked during his postgame news conference whether his club had come out flat, Lewis said: "We didn't come out flat. We got our head kicked in. There was nothing flat about that. When you get punched in the face, that's what happens. That's an excuse -- flat. Flat didn't drop balls. Flat didn't miss assignments. Flat didn't commit penalties and miss tackles." . . . Quarterback Peyton Manning suffered a bruised left shoulder during the Indianapolis Colts' loss Saturday at Denver. An MRI exam showed no serious damage. . . .

Second-year pro Willie Parker could be Pittsburgh's starting tailback for the Steelers' regular season opener against the Tennessee Titans. Jerome Bettis is to miss at least two weeks because of a strained calf muscle, and Duce Staley is recovering from knee surgery during training camp. . . .

Jacksonville released veteran wide receiver Troy Edwards on Sunday. He could end up with the Titans. . . . Cleveland released veteran linebacker Brant Boyer. . . . Cincinnati placed linebacker Nate Webster on the physically unable to perform list, meaning he must sit out at least the first six weeks of the season. . . . Wide receiver Peter Warrick remains a forgotten man in Cincinnati and appears in extreme danger of being released before the season. . . . San Diego rookie linebacker Shawne Merriman is to be sidelined at least two weeks by the sprained posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee he suffered during Friday's preseason game at Minnesota. . . . Atlanta rookie linebacker Jordan Beck likely will miss the entire season after suffering a broken foot in Thursday's game at Jacksonville. . . . The Broncos also told quarterback Danny Kanell, tight end Patrick Hape, guard Cameron Spikes and defensive linemen Luther Elliss and Raylee Johnson that they'd be released. Brad Van Pelt has displaced Kanell as starting quarterback Jake Plummer's top backup.