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Hopeful Rudi on the clock

Posted Mar 11, 2005

6:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON


Johnson remains hopeful a long-term deal can be worked out. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
With the Rudi Johnson countdown clock at four days heading into the weekend, the man of the hour is pleased with the signs and is hopeful is he'll have a long-term deal by zero hour.

"We've made some progress over the last couple of days and I hope we can close it out," Johnson said late Friday afternoon of the negotiations for a multi-year contract. "We're not there yet. There are still some things that need to be done. But I know they're going to keep talking this weekend and, I don't know, I'm always hopeful."

With about $1 million to spend, indications heading into the weekend are the Bengals aren't looking to bring on a major salary via a trade or free agency as they try to wrap up Johnson, their bell-cow running back, and the only other signings they seem ready to make are a tweak instead of an overhaul.

Talks continue
Johnson indicated the Bengals have been talking steadily with his agent, Peter Schaffer, in anticipation of the March 16 deadline that kicks off a four-month negotiating blackout on a long-term deal. The Lamont Jordan deal may or may not have the two sides wrestling with the $5 million per year Corey Dillon figure, but Johnson is the only guy the Bengals are talking about giving big money.

It looks like the negotiations are coming down to where both sides view Johnson in the NFL. Is he a top 12 back? Top Ten? Top Five? It's a subject that Johnson didn't want to delve into when asked if the Bengals are in the Jordan neighborhood, a reference to the five-year, $27.5 million deal Jordan inked in Oakland last week.

There are a lot of different ways to measure a deal than just by the annual average, such as first-year compensation and "real" money in the first few years of the contract. But Johnson wouldn't talk specifics.

"You'll see the finished product," Johnson said.

NFL salary cap figures aren't supposed to be revealed by teams or players. But before free agency began, it was reported in some circles that the Bengals had $14 million of room under the $85.5 million cap.

Johnson's one-year deal of $6.3 million and wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh's estimated first-year cap number of $3 million in his four-year deal shaved that number to about $5 million.

Then, the Bengals made about $2.5 million in one-year tenders to restricted free agents, cutting it to $2.5 million.

One million to $1.5 million figures to be put aside to re-sign center Rich Braham. That would appear to leave the Bengals with about $1 million, which means they are going to have to eventually cut some players or re-structure some contracts because they're going to need about $3 million to sign their draft picks by training camp.

The release of safety Rogers Beckett gave them virtually no cap relief, a savings of about $250,000.

Deals a longshot
So the infinite number of Rudi Johnson trades for either Edgerrin James, Shaun Alexander or Jason Taylor, just don't seem to be in the cards because it would be a cap hit with reverberations. The thinking looks to be if the Bengals are going to drop a big number on a running back, it's going to be their own, so why trade a back for a back? And, if they can't get Johnson signed, how easy is it going to be to get James or Alexander signed?

It looks like that signing a mega contract for one of those backs or Taylor would force them to revamp the club as far as the cap. But head coach Marvin Lewis has said in his few public pronouncements since the end of the season that keeping Johnson and Houshmandzadeh returns a nucleus that needs to be fine-tuned and not rebuilt.

That doesn't mean the Bengals wouldn't like some of the players that are out there. Miami's Brian Robinson would make them better at defensive tackle, but it looks like their price hasn't been met. Although Denver defensive lineman Ellis Johnson visited Thursday, he doesn't seem to be a fit because he's more of a third-down player and the Bengals are looking to upgrade on first and second down.

The agent for Texans linebacker Jamie Sharper says his client would like to be re-united with Lewis, but they won't give up a draft pick and would prefer to wait until he's a free agent. His brother, Packers safety Darren Sharper, looks to be commanding a high dollar figure that doesn't fit the cap, and since the Bengals haven't contacted his agent, it might be that they concluded he's more of a free safety than the strong they seek.

But all eyes are on the Johnson clock.

"I hope so; I hope so," Johnson said. "They're going to keep talking."

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