Agent: Braham looks to return

3-5-04, 2:45 p.m. Updated:
3-5-04, 7 p.m. Updated:
3-5-04, 11:15 p.m. Updated:
3-6-04, 5:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals appeared to have shored up a key spot for new starting quarterback Carson Palmer Saturday when long-time center Rich Braham returned from his recruiting visit to the Giants to stay home.

"It's not official yet, but it looks like Richie is coming back to the Bengals," said agent Vern Sharbaugh. "They want him back. They had two inside spots to fill, a young quarterback, and you can see why they wanted a veteran back."

Braham, 33, a 10-year vet who has been with the Bengals longer than anyone on the roster, had a fine year in 2003 when he came off the bench in Week 2 to start 15 games after the Bengals decided to move Mike Goff back to right guard. When the Chargers lured Goff to San Diego Friday with a five-year deal for $13.2 million, the Bengals seemed to think it was imperative to stay consistent at center.

The club won't comment until a contract is signed

The apparent deal with Braham capped a whirlwind 24 hours for Cincinnati.

After unexpectedly making Shayne Graham their highest-paid kicker ever Friday with one of the five highest kicking salaries in the NFL with a five-year deal averaging $1.3 million, all indications were the Bengals stepped back to pause before securing Braham.

With the Bengals closing in on the NFL salary cap number of $80 million (counting draft picks and Palmer's escalators, they are up against it according to ESPN.com's cap survey), they released a long-time regular in cornerback Artrell Hawkins to wipe away his $1.3 million salary.

Hawkins looks to be in good shape to find a job. Agent Don Yee said Saturday that he's being pursued by the Steelers, his hometown team that nearly signed him two years ago. Since the Pittsburgh defensive staff now has the coaches who drafted Hawkins in Cincinnati with Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator and Ray Horton in the secondary, it looks to be an attractive fit for both sides.

It could be a sign of things to come in order to make some more room under the cap. Hawkins became the second long-time defensive starter relegated to a backup under Marvin Lewis to be released this week when he joined tackle Oliver Gibson.

But they are still talking to free agents that are interested in playing defense for Lewis and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. The agent for five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Troy Vincent said she talked to the Bengals Saturday and "had a nice conversation.

"I think he would like to be there with those two," said Linda Bodley of Lewis and Frazier.

Lewis confirmed that Vincent, Dolphins free safety Brock Marion, and Giants center Chris Bober visited Thursday and Friday, and the agent for Colts cornerback David Macklin confirmed his client's arrival at PBS Friday. The Charlotte Observer reported Panthers cornerback Reggie Howard was also going to also be here this weekend until he signed with Miami.

The corners are dropping like flies, which is probably why the Bengals are going after Vincent aggressively. Antoine Winfield went to the Vikings, Ahmed Plummer went back to the 49ers, and Fernando Bryant went to the Lions, and all went for what looked to be at least $4-5 million per year, numbers the Bengals didn't want to touch so they could get several players.

With Goff gone,the visit of Eagles guard Bobbie Williams next week takes on added significance. In San Diego, Goff, 28, was introduced as the new leader of the Chargers offensive line as heads into his sixth season. His $2.7 million average is a figure the Bengals apparently weren't prepared to pay a guard when they offered him a deal before free agency.

"It's been brought to my attention that I am now the oldest offensive lineman in the group and that's never happened to me before," Goff said. "We'll live with that and I just want to bring a little bit of leadership and little bit of experience and I think that I've been battle-tested enough that I can help a lot of the younger guys in different situations. I'm looking forward to that challenge."

They may be able to get some cap relief from the

proposal for a contract extension that quarterback Jon Kitna said his agent planned to send to the Bengals Friday. Kitna said it would save the Bengals money this year, "but how much is a lot depends, I guess." Kitna said the Bengals have never mentioned trading away his $3.3 million salary now that Palmer is the starter.

"It's in their court now," Kitna said. "They said they wanted an offer, and we worked on it and came up with something we thought was fair for both sides."

Losing Hawkins and Goff wasn't surprising, but having to take a $1.1 million cap hit on Graham was after taking less than 24 hours to match the Jaguars' offer sheet. The Bengals were pleased to keep their waiver-wire wonder, but the extra $500,000 this year probably cost them another free agent somewhere down the road.

Yet the rest of the contract is a good deal for the Bengals if he keeps up his pace of last season, when he hit 22 of 25 field-goal tries for a Bengals' record 88 percent. Three of the $6.5 million is guaranteed ($2 million to sign, $500,000 in each of the last two seasons), but the salary in 2008 of $1.2 million is less than the current franchise number for kickers of $1.6 million.

Despite the tight cap, the Bengals are out there. The new agent for Bengals free safety Rogers Beckett said the club has an offer out to him, but after visiting the Jets he said his client has a couple of more trips planned.

"He really likes Cincinnati and would like to go back," said David Caravantes. "But it's not there yet and he has other places to see."

Although Marion turns 34 before the season, he's Lewis' kind of guy with two Super Bowl rings from his days in Dallas. Agent Jordan Woy said the Bengals have been fairly aggressive in trying to crunch some numbers.

Vincent, the Eagles' five-time Pro Bowler, reported back to agent Linda Bodley late Friday afternoon that he enjoyed the Bengals' coaches. But the sides had yet to start talking numbers and Vincent has to decide if he wants to decide between the Bengals and Bills, or take a few more trips.

The Bengals told Robb Nelson, the agent for Bober, that they would talk to him over the weekend. That probably hinges on how Bengals center Rich Braham's trip went with the Giants Friday, and agent Vern Sharbaugh indicated New York is also going to talk to him over the weekend.

The Bengals could have deterred teams from signing Graham if they had offered him $1.38 million so the compensation would have been a first-round pick instead of nothing. But they were trying to save $700,000 so they could use it on another free agent.

As it was, the overall average of the contract is $1.3 million, tying for fifth highest in the league. If Graham leads the NFL in field goal percentage in 2004 and the Bengals win the AFC North, his salaries of $975,000 and $1.2 million in the final two years are guaranteed. All of which makes him virtually un-releasable.

"I was running the numbers through my head and I still can't fathom it," Graham said. "I hope I never do. Yes, it is hard to believe (he's a millionaire). Three million guaranteed is unbelievable for anyone 26 years old."

Six days before Opening Day, Graham spent the day driving his 2003 Acura from Carolina to his home in Virginia to Cincinnati after losing a tight training camp battle to John Kasay and the Bengals picked him off the waiver wire. He left Cincinnati hauling the Acura behind a Cadillac after finishing the most accurate field-goal season in Bengals' history. He hit 22 of 25, and was 22 of 23 under 50 yards.

Graham said he wasn't certain the Bengals would match the offer because he said they didn't give him one before free agency started. But after being on three teams in three years, and being released by two other teams three times before that, he was hoping.

"I made so many great connections in Cincinnati that I really didn't want to break those like I had to every year," Graham said. "I really love the coaches and the guys. It's a great place to be. But Jacksonville treated me so well, too."

Graham knew Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio from his days in Carolina, and special teams coach Pete Rodriguez had him in Seattle.

The Bengals cut Hawkins even though they don't appear to be close to signing one of the corners they targeted in free agency because the market has yet to fall under $4 million per year. The Bengals had contacted Jaguars cornerback Fernando Bryant about a visit, but he reportedly agreed with the Lions on a six-year, $24 million deal that includes a $7.25 million signing bonus.

Hawkins, 27, started 72 games in six seasons after the Bengals hurried him into the starting lineup immediately following his second-round selection out of the University of Cincinnati in 1998.

While coming under fire at times for his inconsistent coverage, no one ever doubted his toughness and willingness to come up and make a hit. He started nine games last year when Jeff Burris struggled with a concussion and ended up second on the team in passes defensed and seventh in tackles.

Hawkins was nagged by a sore knee in the last half of this season, but started against the 49ers despite illness. After leaving the game with a quad bruise on the first series, he came back to play when Burris and strong safety Rogers Beckett went down.

Hawkins ended his Bengals' career with nine interceptions. His 102-yard return for a score against Houston in 2002 tied Louis Breeden's club record and earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Week.

The Bengals have to decide if they have enough money to replace Goff, or if they replace him with fourth-year Victor Leyva or second-year Scott Kooistra. Meanwhile, Goff is being re-united with former Bengals fullback Lorenzo Neal and former Iowa teammate Tim Dwight, bur he couldn't contain his enthusiasm about blocking for Pro Bowl running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

"We've played against the Chargers several times and he's just an amazing back," Goff said. "He reminds me a lot of Barry Sanders, just bigger. He's amazing, that's the only thing I can really say about it. He makes something out of nothing and I'm very excited to be a part of it. I think he can rush for 3,000 yards the way you see him play so I'm excited to work with a guy who is that talented."

After flying to San Diego from his visit with the Giants in New Jersey, Goff said his meetings with the Chargers' coaches helped make his decision. That, and the Bengals' 34-27 victory over San Diego last season.

"When we played them last year we had quite a lead and they didn't give up," Goff said. "It came down to the last quarter and I liked the way they fought. Every game that I've seen, they fought even if the score was bad, they still fought and never gave up and I think that's a key characteristic of a team that's going to make a move to win the Super Bowl."

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