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2-20-04, 9:25 p.m.


INDIANAPOLIS _ The NFL salary cap has been raised by about $2 million to the $80 million neighborhood and the Bengals are still tight against it 11 days before free agency opens.

The Bengals now have about $10 million to drop, but take away about $3 million for draft picks and another estimated $4 million for offers to their restricted free agents. The big money there figures to be the $1.82 million tender to running back Rudi Johnson that would give the Bengals a first- and third-round pick if they chose not to match an offer sheet.

So, the money isn't exactly flowing. That leaves about $3 million and they still have to deal with a good portion of their eight unrestricted free agents (or their replacements), never mind trying to make a couple of market killings.

Head coach Marvin Lewis admitted Friday "some tradeoffs have to be made," once the signings start. Which means incumbent players are probably going to get cut, because Lewis said the Bengals don't have to re-negotiate deals yet because most of their contracts don't "balloon," in future years.

But one contract they may have to tweak is quarterback Jon Kitna's $3.3 million salary. If Carson Palmer does indeed become No.1, it's believed Kitna would be the NFL's only backup quarterback making more than $2 million this year. Kitna said after last season he would be willing to re-negotiate and the Bengals just may have to ask depending how things break.

"It's tough to go to a player and ask for something back," said Lewis, who wasn't talking about Kitna specifically. "But I do think we're going to have to make some hard decisions based on some things."

Already, the Bengals have done that by not re-signing one of their own free agents. One agent of a Bengals' free-agent starter said Friday the team told him they're letting his guy go into the market.

"Our values and their values aren't all the same," Lewis said. "They earned the right to be a free agent, but if they look, we have to look. We've had great conversations with all those guys. . .There's a great chance and great opportunity for those guys, but if it's going to be about money, they probably have to go to a different team."

With four starters on the market (both safeties in Mark Roman and Rogers Beckett, right guard Mike Goff, center Rich Braham), Lewis said the club will start pursuing starters at those positions, and probably their own guys if the number is right. After going through the process last year, Lewis has revamped his philosophy. It's his free-agency equivalent of not reaching in the draft. He calls it working the board across instead of down.

"Let's not keep going down the same road and lock ourselves in (by saying) we have to have that position filled and take a lesser player," Lewis said. "You can't go, 'he's gone, he's gone, he's gone, we're stuck with that guy.' Don't take that guy. (Get a better player even if it's another position)."

Lewis has always been big on guys deciding on teams not because of money. He seems even into it more this year.

"I think that's important to us,' Lewis said. "Just like last year. I don't think we're going to outbid anybody for a player and if we do, I don't think he's the right guy anyway. We want to get a guy who wants to help us win a championship in Cincinnati."

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