Saturday, April 28, 2001

Bengals offseason no great improvement

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Bengals entered the offseason with a chance to set themselves up for a revival. They were an NFL-high $14.8 million under the salary cap. They had president Mike Brown's vow to go hard after free agents. And they had their third straight top-four draft pick.

        And what do they have to show for it?

        • Like last year, when they drafted wide receiver Peter Warrick, the Bengals took a potential impact player in the first round, this time Justin Smith at defensive end.

        • Like last year, when they picked up defensive linemen Tom Barndt and Vaughn Booker and quarterback Scott Mitchell, they missed out on the elite free agents and signed a group of second-tier players to provide competition at key positions, but no certain starters.

        • Like last year, when running back Corey Dillon's contract status was in doubt, they are somewhat hamstrung while they wait to see if he will return.

        Indeed, the 2001 offseason looks a lot like the 2000 offseason, which looked a lot like the 1999 offseason, when first-round pick and quarterback Akili Smith appeared to be the only impact player added. What the Bengals did accomplish this offseason, in an attempt to turn around a three-year run of 11 total victories, was adding some options and depth at some key positions.

        “We are going to raise the level of talent on this team that will compete and fight for their jobs,” said head coach Dick LeBeau, who will oversee his first minicamp May 4-7 after replacing Bruce Coslet during the 2000 season. “They're all going to have to fight for their job.”

        Although the Bengals offered quarterback Elvis Grbac more money in free agency than he took to sign in Baltimore, they came away with former Seahawk Jon Kitna, who was brought in to compete with Akili Smith and the recently re-signed Mitchell. Kitna knows the offense of new coordinator Bob Bratkowski, formerly of Seattle, but was inconsistent in recent years.

        On the defensive line, the Bengals signed tackle Tony Williams from the Vikings and end Kevin Henry from the Steelers. But Williams had only three sacks a year ago, and Henry has one the past two years. The Bengals already had accomplished run stoppers Oliver Gibson, Barndt and Glen Steele.

        The draft could end up being a good one, especially compared to last year's, which produced one obvious starter and potential superstar in Warrick but otherwise was so uneventful the second-most important pick was long snapper Brad St. Louis in the seventh round.

        Justin Smith could become the Bengals' first double-digit sacker since Alfred Williams had 10 in 1992, and could help a team that managed an AFC-low 26 sacks last season. And second-round pick Chad Johnson will help allow Bratkowski to use three-receiver sets while backing up Darnay Scott, who missed the 2000 season with a broken leg, and Warrick.

        But the Bengals took a tight end at No.3, Sean Brewer, whom they really didn't need, and didn't take an offensive lineman until guard Victor Leyva from Arizona State in the fifth round. Leyva was a four-year starter at Arizona State and looks like a pro prospect, but the Bengals are set at guard with Mike Goff, who signed a three-year contract Friday, and Matt O'Dwyer.

        Meanwhile, they failed to fill two of their biggest needs: offensive left tackle and cornerback. They tried during free agency with no success.

        At tackle, they made pitches to former Viking Todd Steussie and former Packer Ross Verba, but Steussie chose Carolina and Verba opted for Cleveland. The need at left tackle remains so acute, the Bengals are looking at 34-year-old Richmond Webb of the Dolphins. Bengals officials said Friday the two sides are in the “feeling-out” process; they expect dollar figures to be discussed beginning Monday. Webb started 14 games for the playoff Dolphins last year.

        The Bengals did re-sign 36-year-old John Jackson, who replaced Rod Jones in the lineup last year until he suffered a hamstring injury.

        The other traditional problem area for the Bengals has been cornerback. They drafted corners — Artrell Hawkins, Charles Fisher and Mark Roman — in the second rounds of the 1998-2000 drafts.

        Their only offseason move this year was to release veteran Tom Carter and re-sign him for about 40 percent of what he made in 2000. The Bengals have entertained several frees agents, including Ronde Barber, Walt Harris and DeRon Jenkins. Barber and Harris re-signed in Tampa Bay and Chicago, respectively, and the Bengals are trying to hammer out a deal with former Charger Jenkins.

        Harris was the ninth free agent to turn down a Bengals contract offer. Other notables on that list are Grbac, former Steelers linebacker Levon Kirkland, former Cowboys receiver James McKnight and former Redskins defensive lineman Dana Stubblefield. Stubblefield, a former Taylor High School star, signed recently with San Francisco.

        Other teams with less to offer managed to help themselves more. San Diego, coming off a 1-15 season, had about $5 million less to spend than the Bengals. But the Chargers added free agents Marcellus Wiley (defensive end), Doug Flutie (quarterback), Ryan McNeil (cornerback) and Alex Molden (cornerback), then drafted running back LaDainian Tomlinson and quarterback Drew Brees with their first two picks.

        Brown has said the Bengals had to temper their pursuit of free agents because they needed money to match any offer Dillon could get as a restricted free agent. But Brown waited until last week to clear about $1.5 million in extra cap room by terminating the contract of veteran defensive lineman John Copeland. Dillon, meanwhile, has received no offers, although Cleveland is said to be considering one.

        Barring any impending free agent signings, the Bengals are left to hope current players can help fill the voids. The Bengals have been encouraged by Jones' offseason conditioning program, which has resulted in a 33-pound weight loss.

        Brown took note of Jones' appearance and was reminded of something his father, the late Paul Brown, used to say.

        “You look everywhere for riches when they're right at your feet,” Mike Brown said.

        Brown also is looking for better production from Barndt and Booker, who were slowed by injuries in their first Bengals seasons.

        “It's a solid eight or nine guys we have up there now,” Brown said of the defensive line.


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