Blue-collar investments

Posted Sep 2, 2011

Updated: 3:25 p.m.

If there was ever a sign that the Bengals locker room has changed options from HD to closed caption it came in the last 48 hours with mega contact extensions on each side of the ball.

With about $25 million alone ticketed to left tackle Andrew Whitworth and cornerback Leon Hall this year in deals that keep them here through 2015, the Bengals have staked their core on two down-to-earth players in a room once defined by celebrity and stars.

Now add to the list center Kyle Cook, a fourth-year player heading into free agency that signed an extension through 2015 a few hours after Hall. Cook, 28, definitely fits the bill. He was undrafted, got cut by the Vikings, picked up by Cincinnati, went to the practice squad and is now in his third year as a solid, up-and-coming starter known for his nastiness, brains and agility.

“I think it’s a good change. I like the guys that were here before but unfortunately they’re not here with us anymore,” Hall said Friday after shortly signing the deal. “But I think it’s a good locker room. I don’t see many negatives in the direction we’re going as a team. Even before that, we wanted to win.”

Hall and Whitworth are blue-collar blue-chippers on the cusp of the Pro Bowl. Hall, 26, a San Diego native who played his college ball at Michigan, has the blue-collar Big Ten demeanor. Mention you want to do a feature story on him and he tries to talk you out of it.

“Bad luck,” says Hall, who has never missed a game with 65 straight.

Whitworth, 29, just flat out plays a blue-collar position. Here’s a guy that has never given a sack to James Harrison and Terrell Suggs and if he ever gets called into the media room, it will be the day he makes the Pro Bowl. Proof he’s low profile? He won the AFC fan vote at tackle and still didn’t make the team.

Cook is an up-and-comer who has a longer way to go than Hall, a first-rounder, and Whitworth, a second-rounder. But his communication skills and athleticism have become the glue of the line.

Hall and Whitworth know their deals say a lot more than the Bengals’ hit on this year salary cap, which figures to in the $14 million range. It says what the club expects from Whitworth and Hall in the locker room. And Hall says he expects to win.

“Signing Whit was great. It’s important for any team to keep the core guys in place if you want to be consistent in this sport,” Hall said. “It means a lot to me that the Browns have this much faith in me as a player and a person.

"The biggest thing is keeping the core guys here. I’ve always had faith in this team, especially after being here for a while and getting to know the guys that are here. I’ve always had faith in them. I know we can play. We just all have to be on the same page and play together. The faith has always been there before today. That was never a big issue.”

Told that Cook had signed as well, Hall was pleased because "I like him even though he's from Michigan State," he said.

Cook's deal, which wasn't reported, isn't as big, of course, but there's no doubt he's had a big impact on the line and his emergence in 2009 was a major reason the Bengals were able to win the division.

"I really like the guys we've got," Cook said. "I think it's a good group and we're going to come together even though we have a lot of new faces, like the quarterback and receiver. It's a bunch of guys that are looking to win."

Hall, one of the most well-rounded cornerbacks the Bengals have ever had, struck a deal a year before he was scheduled to go on the free-agent market that makes him the highest paid Bengals defensive player ever.

Known as a physical player who has had at least 50 tackles in all four of his seasons, Hall is also sixth on the club’s all-time interceptions list with 18 and a cast of coaches that look at him as the ultimate team yet elite player who didn’t miss his first NFL practice until the first day of the 2010 training camp.

Hall and Whitworth play like their personalities. Whitworth, huge, impassive, serious, gets it done by not using the textbook. Hall, steady, cool, smart, rarely makes a mistake playing by the book and not with flashy athleticism, although he’s athletic enough.

“Whatever you ask him to do, he’ll do it and not say a word,” said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. “If you tell him to play the best receiver, he’ll do it. If you tell him to play the nickel he’ll do it. If you tell him to run down on a kickoff he’ll do it. Left side, right side, he does it. He’s tough, smart, practices every day and he’s passionate about football. Just the kind of guy we like.”

If there was going to be a deal, Hall preferred it to be done before the regular season and agent Doug Hendrickson of the firm Octagon worked it out with Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn with more than a week to spare.

“Leon didn’t want to negotiate during the season. It’s like everything else he does: really put his mind to it," Hendrickson said. “And to Cincinnati’s credit, they stepped up and gave him an elite deal. Of all the corners ahead of him except for (Darrelle) Revis, the other guys were unrestricted and they basically gave him an unrestricted deal even though he had a year left.

“And Leon appreciates it. He always wanted to stay. He loves the coaches and he thinks they’re going the right way. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have signed.”

It puts Hall tied for fifth at NFL corners with his old buddy Joseph in salary.

“Honestly, really, it’s not all about the money,” Hall said. “I love this team, the players I’m playing with. I love our defensive coaches. Zim. Kevin (Coyle). Paulie (Guenther). That was a big factor. But it was our players. Close-knit friends that I would hate not to be around.”

On Friday he was headed to lunch with teammates Chris Crocker and Brandon Ghee and Crocker could be heard talking about how Hall now had to go through him to get interviews because of the contract.

But if there are three guys that aren’t going to let the money change them, it’s Whitworth, Hall and Cook. First, Whitworth and Hall are tied up at home with small children, Whitworth with the seven-month-old lockout twins and Hall with 18-month-old carbon copy Leon Jr.

Cook's baby is his 2001 Ford truck with 150,000 miles on it. He's also got an '08 truck. He'll keep both and not buy another one.

"The money goes in the bank," he said. "Where it belongs."

It is something Hall would do.

“In 20 years being in this business, he’s one of the most high-end guys I’ve had," Hendrickson said. “He doesn’t have Twitter, he doesn’t have Facebook, he doesn’t go out. Football and his family are No. 1 and he plays golf in the offseason, that’s it.”

Hall is going to have to talk his Michigan-bred wife into moving to San Diego after his playing days, but both have embraced Cincinnati. It fits their low profile.

“I love the city. I’d never been here before but the people here have been tremendous to me and my family,” Hall said. “I feel like I have the greatest neighbors anyone can have and that makes the biggest difference, too.”

Hall, like Whitworth, has a foundation that both want to get deeper into the community. Hall and wife Jessica have already done a lot of work with the Boys Home of Northern Kentucky and he wants to expand to other projects that focus on underprivileged children from one-parent homes.

He may have to break down for that and get a Twitter account.


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