Sunday, February 29, 2004

Lewis is flexible in free-agent approach

'Hasty' not a word in coach's vocab

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Though NFL teams are more likely to address specific needs in free agency than in the draft, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis doesn't want to get so locked into a certain position that the team ends up with a lesser player.

If the process of evaluating, pursuing and signing available free agents were a grid, Lewis wants to work more horizontally than vertically.

For example, in looking down the list at offensive linemen a year ago, the Bengals saw Reggie Kelly's name surface in a related position - tight end - as someone who could help.

"He seemed to be the best option for us in another area where we could use another player," Lewis said, "and I think the same thing a little bit this year."

The veteran free agency signing period begins after midnight on Wednesday morning. The Bengals have eight unrestricted free agents - including four 2003 starters - who are expected to test the market.

Another seven Bengals, including tailback Rudi Johnson and kicker Shayne Graham, are restricted free agents. Teams have the right to match offer sheets restricted free agents receive from other clubs or receive compensation depending on the tendered amount. The Bengals are expected to tender offers to some of their restricted players as soon as Monday. Lewis has a news conference scheduled for 11 a.m.

The unrestricted free agent market is deepest at cornerback, a position the Bengals haven't solved since the mid-1990s. Former Oakland corner Tory James was an upgrade in 2003. The return of Jeff Burris, the other starting cornerback, is uncertain, because he suffered two concussions in 2003. So the Bengals might invest in the likes of former Wyoming High and Ohio State star Ahmed Plummer of the 49ers, or former fellow Buckeyes Antoine Winfield of the Bills and Shawn Springs of the Seahawks. Cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor of the Eagles are interested in the Bengals because of their past affiliation with Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.

Safety, the interior of the offensive line and middle linebacker, are also positions the Bengals are likely to target if the right player is there. Unrestricted free agent middle linebackers who might draw the Bengals' interest include Nate Webster of the Buccaneers, Kevin Mitchell of the Redskins and Randall Godfrey of the Seahawks.

Overall, there's a desired attitude for Lewis. And a desired style of physical play.

"We want to have guys who are sudden and have urgency in their play and play with good hips and knee bend," Lewis said.

Interest has to be mutual. The Bengals like meeting prospective free agents in person and, Lewis said, "looking them in the eye and seeing, 'Is this guy coming in for the money? Or is this guy coming here because he wants to be a champion?' "

The Bengals signed just one unrestricted player in the first week of free agency a year ago, defensive lineman Carl Powell. The organization, Lewis said, is likely to take a similar approach this year.

"That first frenzy was hard not being a part of it, and the fans were frustrated and everybody was frustrated because it seemed like we weren't doing anything," Lewis said.

But on the eighth day of free agency, the Bengals signed linebacker Kevin Hardy, following his agreement with contracts with defensive tackle John Thornton on Day 9 and James on Day 11. Hardy, Thornton and James each started every game. And though the defense slumped to a No. 28 league ranking, those three and other newcomers helped change the team's attitude and contributed to an eight-victory season.

The moderate success enjoyed by the Bengals in 2003 should make Cincinnati an even more desirable destination for free agents in 2004.

"I think our players have made the right statement to other players, that we want to go to the top of the league, (that) we have the opportunity to, (that) things are in place to do that, and it's not the Siberia that people thought it was," Lewis said.

The Bengals should have room to work under the salary cap, but not as much space as in previous years. The cap ballooned to $80.5 million, about $1.8 million more than expected, leaving the Bengals roughly $10 million under.

"It's as tight as it's ever been, so we are tight," Lewis said. "There's going to be some tradeoffs that have to be made."



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