Bengals among NFL signing leaders

7-15-03, 5:25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

With less than two weeks before training camp opens, the agent for Bengals second-round pick Eric Steinbach remains confident the projected starting left guard will be signed in time for drills.

The La Jolla, Calif.-based Jack Bechta acknowledged this week that signings are slow all around the NFL primarily because of the teams' desire for long term deals in the wake of the Redskins' purging restricted free agents in the offseason and the teams' effort to keep deals close to the 2002 signings because the amount of the rookie pool is virtually the same as last year.

The Bengals have been busier than most in signing four of their nine picks. Only the Giants and Chiefs have signed more, and, as of Tuesday afternoon they had just one of the six players selected on the first day of the NFL Draft who have signed.

USC quarterback Carson Palmer is the only first-rounder in the fold. The two second-rounders who

have signed (Kansas City at No. 47 and Atlanta at No. 55) are probably far enough away from Steinbach's selection at the top of the second round at No. 33 not to impact the negotiations.

"We've been open, friendly and positive," said Bechta of his conversations with Bengals vice president Paul Brown. "There are some reasons why things are not moving quickly around the league and I can't say when this deal is going to get done. I think we're in good shape."

With the Redskins raiding the Jets for three-year restricted free agents Laveranues Coles and Chad Morton, Bechta said teams are now putting a premium on signing rookies to four- and five-year deals. And in some reported offers to players picked in later rounds in which there are rarely long-term deals, teams are sweetening four-year contracts with bigger signing bonuses and escalators.

The second-round pick behind the draft's first overall choice is always an interesting case because the No. 1 gets so much of the rookie pool. ESPN.com reported Palmer's contact took up $2.5 million of the club's estimated $4.5 million rookie pool. In an odd twist, Bechta has represented players in the second round behind No. 1 Drew Bledsoe in 1993 and No. 1 David Carr last year.

"We're committed to using whatever tools we have at our disposal," Bechta said. "Agents are used to getting hired for adding value to contracts. We're in back-to-back years in which the cap is flat. So there are guys like me looking to add 10, 15, 20 percent to deals over the previous year while teams are trying to hold the line in a flat cap. In the end, creativity will make everyone happy."

The Bengals have always resisted using the voidable-years concept on second-round picks in which a big signing bonus is spread over a multi-year deal that can be shortened. For instance, after signing Carr last year, the Texas worked a seven-year contract with wide receiver Jabar Gaffney at No. 33 that can void to four with minimum play time in any season. Bechta represented San Diego State tackle Chester Pitts, taken 17 picks after Gaffney in the second round.

The Bengals prefer more straight forward deals and haven't had major problems getting their second-rounders to sign basic four-year contracts. The last two, wide receiver Chad Johnson and safety Lamont Thompson, reported on time.

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