Saturday, March 10, 2001

Dillon getting no takers


Price tag, Brown scare off suitors

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Dozens of NFL free agents are collecting frequent flyer miles visiting cities from coast to coast, but Corey Dillon is staying home.

        The free-agent Bengals running back surely would attract a great deal of attention if he were making the rounds to Cleveland, Kansas City, Chicago or any of the other teams in need of a Pro Bowl running back. But there has been no sign of Dillon.

        There's always the chance Leigh Steinberg, Dillon's third representative in three months, is working quietly behind the scenes. But Steinberg, like Dillon, isn't talking.

        Still, Dillon's case of free-agent cabin fever comes as a surprise. Or does it?

        There is a growing sense around the league that Bengals president Mike Brown has scared off potential suitors and may end up trying to re-sign Dillon for less than he offered him in December.

        Brown was ready to hand Dillon $12 million to sign a contract that would have paid him $60 million over eight years. Dillon, say former agents David Levine and James Sims, said no in December, just as he did earlier that month to a six-year pro posal worth $38 million, $10 million at signing.

        Levine and Sims went public with the offers in January when they were being fired by Dillon. The agents wanted to save face, showing other clients and prospective clients they negotiated a record running back contract with one of NFL's most frugal teams.

        The Bengals gave Dillon their transition tag, which allows them to match any offer sheet Dillon might sign with another team. Brown vowed he would meet any deal and bring Dillon back.

        In November, less than two weeks after Dillon broke the NFL's single-game rushing record with 278 yards against Denver, Brown said he would make Dillon a “strong” offer and Dillon would be gambling if he wanted to try to get more in free agency.

        Dillon appears to be losing that bet.

        Even as Brown entertains a long line of free agents in Cincinnati, he has set aside a fund specifically to match any offer Dillon might receive from another team.

        The Bengals have more room under the salary cap than any team, even with the signings this week of defensive tackle Tony Williams and quarterback Jon Kitna.

        The combination of the Bengals' cap room, Brown's stance that he will match and the agents' publicizing the offers Dillon turned down has effectively frozen Dillon out of the market and driven down his asking price.

        Even teams who wanted Dillon as he rumbled for 1,435 yards during the season are making other plans to fill holes at running back.

        Cleveland was expected to make a run at Dillon, but coach Chris Palmer — a big Dillon fan — was fired. Butch Davis, the Browns' new coach who has a big say in personnel decisions, was lukewarm when asked about Dillon at last month's scouting combine.

        The Browns now question Dillon's ability as a receiver and his occasional brushes with the law, which include a domestic violence charge.

        Davis may have Dillon visit in a week or two, but Browns insiders anticipate the team will use its No.3 overall draft pick to select running back Deuce McAllister from Mississippi. Or the Browns could go with running back by committee — they plan on having Errict Rhett back from a torn foot ligament, and former Miami University star Travis Prentice is coming off a solid rookie season. Free agents Curtis Enis and Priest Holmes have visited Cleveland.

        Kansas City was interested in trading for Dillon — last year — but that was before Dick Vermeil was named coach and quarterback Elvis Grbac left the Chiefs for Baltimore. KC's main interest now is trading with the Rams for quarterback Trent Green.

        Minnesota lost running back Robert Smith to retirement, but had to shed veterans such as John Randle to meet the salary cap. Besides, the Vikings now are saving to pay wide receiver Randy Moss what figures to be the biggest contract in league history.

        Philadelphia was, for a time, considered a player in the Dillon sweepstakes. Not any more. The Eagles spent a lot to sign free agent wide receiver James Thrash and say running back Duce Staley will be back from his foot injury for the 2001 season.

        Chicago was in the hunt for Dillon at one time, too. But they like James Allen enough to let first-round bust Enis go. The Bears probably will draft a running back early, most likely Wisconsin's Michael Bennett, and have more pressing problems at quarterback.

        So what's next for Dillon and the Bengals? The team pulled its offers off the table in January, saying they were made before they started planning for and signing other unrestricted free agents.

        There is a tender offer of $3.67 million available to Dillon from the Bengals, but he won't take it.

        Bengals fans can look forward to another contract stalemate pitting the club against the gifted running back. In the end, Dillon probably will sign with the Bengals, even for one year. But he could make good on his threat of a year ago to sit out the season.

        This tale could be opening another colorful chapter. The Bengals soon will regain their use of the franchise tag, which they lost in the Carl Pickens saga but could slap on Dillon. The franchise tag would require another team that signs Dillon to compensate the Bengals with two top draft picks, which would make it even harder for Dillon to leave Cincinnati.

       



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