Agent: Steinbach deal 'inching closer'

7-24-03, 6:40 p.m. Updated:
7-25-03, 3:25 p.m. Updated:
7-26-03, 2:05 a.m. Updated:
7-26-03, 7:30 p.m. Updated:
7-26-03, 11:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The agent for second-round pick Eric Steinbach said a deal with the Bengals Saturday night is "inching closer," less than 24 hours before the club is supposed to report to Georgetown College for training camp. But as midnight neared and talks closed for the night, Jack Bechta said, "We still have a lot of work to do on most of the issues and we'll get going on it first thing in the morning."

Bechta said he thought they were in the final stages of negotiations because the market for the first pick in the second round (33rd overall) is pretty much set after deals for Nos. 34 and 36 have been inked, but he said they were still hashing out all the numbers, such as average per year and escalators.

"We've traded proposals three or four times in the last 24 hours or so," Bechta said. "The market is pretty much what it's going to be because the Bengals are one of the last teams in. We're not there, but we're working at it."

Bechta anticipated the Bears signing the No. 35 pick some time Saturday, and all indications are that deal is going to fall in line with the high second-round trend of a five-year deal with escalators.

The Bengals were also apparently still talking with their three other unsigned draft picks, third-rounder Kelley Washington and fourth-rounders Dennis Weathersby and Jeremi Johnson. Indications from outside the club are that Weathersby and Johnson should be in the fold in the next day, but the Washington negotiations seem to be more up in the air.

Steinbach is a key signing because he's the only rookie slated to start Monday at the first practice of training camp, where the Bengals hope he lines up at left guard.

On Thursday, Bechta had indicated it might be an 11th-hour deal that brings Steinbach into the fold as he looked at the Bengals' track record on signing second-round deals. Last year, safety Lamont Thompson agreed to terms on reporting day. The year before that, wide receiver Chad Johnson inked two days before reporting. The two years before that, Mark Roman and Charles Fisher held out, but Bechta hasn't mentioned that possibility and keeps saying things will get done.

The Bengals did get a deal done Friday when seventh-rounder Elton Patterson, a Central Florida defensive end, signed a three-year contract.

On Thursday afternoon, Bechta said his client wouldn't sign Thursday or Friday, and emphasized there is still plenty of talking to do before the first pick in the second round gets signed. But he also said there is a good chance his client will line up at left guard for training camp's first practice on Monday morning.

"There have been a series of five-year deals with escalators and if we decide to go that route, I would expect the Bengals to jump all over that," said Bechta, referring to deals right behind Steinbach in the second round. "We're not committed to that yet, but I guess that's a way it might go because of the trend."

The Bengals did sign a rookie Thursday in college free agent Noah Happe, a fourth-year junior who is a defensive end from Oregon State.

Fletcher Smith, the agent for Johnson, also couldn't be reached for comment Friday or Saturday. But he said Thursday he doesn't think it will take much talking to finish off his deal.

"It's been slow. We made some progress," Smith said. "Since he's a fourth-rounder, the signing bonus is about all we're talking about. So many other teams have reported ahead of the Bengals that I think it's just a matter of spending some time on it and it shouldn't take long. He should be in here."

The agent game is to get more money for their player than what the player got last year drafted in the same spot. The problem for all NFL teams is the league's rookie pool for 2003 is roughly the same amount that it was in 2002.

According to numbers reported by ESPN.com, the problem for the Bengals and Steinbach is the club has already used up 62 percent of the pool on their five signed draft picks, with 47 percent of that going to the draft's overall No. 1 pick in Carson Palmer.

Bechta would no doubt like to use the voidable-concept that would stretch out the signing bonus over seven years in a contract that would void to four years. The Bengals, fearing that money would be robbed from their veterans in future years, have always avoided voidable deals in the second round, and Bechta knows why.

"It makes your cap a little less complicated to manage (without the voidables)," Bechta said. "Teams don't like to use them and the Bengals don't want to open the door after the first round. I can understand that. But at the same time, if you're buying a house in the neighborhood. . ."

But so far, the neighbors haven't opted for voidables. At No. 34, a slot behind Steinbach, Detroit linebacker Boss Bailey signed a five-year, $4.6 million deal, which gives him a $95,000 roster bonus that comes equipped with an escalator clause. At No. 36, the Patriots also signed cornerback Eugene Wilson to a straight five-year contract that includes an escalator in the fifth year.

The Bengals haven't been in love with giving rookies escalators, but they would probably rather make up the signing bonus to Steinbach in that fashion rather than doling out voidable years.

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