Bengals brace for business

2-22-01, 8:00 p.m.


With the opening of the NFL scouting combine and free agency on the same Friday of March 1, the Bengals are gearing up for what looks to be their busiest off-season stretch in recent memory.

Most of the club's football operations staff plans to make the 110-mile drive over to the Indianapolis combine Thursday to scout the nation's top college players. But they are portable. Officials are bringing along fax machines, computers, and anything else that aids them in the signing of an official NFL contract.

Last year on the first weekend of free agency, the Bengals hosted quarterbacks Gus Frerotte on Saturday and Elvis Grbac on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. They won't be able to do that out of the gate this year because of the combine, but they are prepared to start hosting free agents the day after the combine ends on Tuesday, March 5.

Some agents, such as David Levine, are bringing along their free agents to Indy so they can meet and greet potential suitors. One of those is Bengals defensive end Reinard Wilson, a player hoping a team is willing to drop more money on him as a three-down player than Cincinnati is prepared to give him as a rush specialist.

"It's going to be interesting," Levine said. "We're not shutting out the Bengals, but we think there is a number out there."

Mark Bartelstein, the agent for former Colts Pro Bowl tight end Ken Dilger, said Friday his client's home is nearby and he plans to meet with some teams next weekend in Indy. He said Dilger could meet with the Bengals at the combine, and the Bengals extended Dilger an invitation to visit, but it won't be until after the

combine. Dilger, 31, cut by the Colts Thursday, already has several visits lined up for next week. His connection to the Bengals is Duke Tobin, the club's director of pro/college personnel. They arrived at Illinois together as quarterbacks before Tobin transferred to Colorado and Dilger switched to tight end. Tobin's father, Bill, drafted Dilger in the second round when he was the Colts general manager in 1995.

Bartelstein said Dilger, an Indiana native, is prepared to listen to teams from all over the country.

"We're getting a lot of calls," Bartelstein said. "I don't know if this is going to go very long. He's the best tight end on the market."

The Bengals don't appear to be in that initial hunt, sending all indications that their first priorities in free agency are a quarterback and a cornerback. They've also talked about drafting a tight end.

One of the reasons the Bengals can only look at two free-agent signings at the moment is because of a tight fit under the salary cap that figures to be less than $5 million on March 1, counting the team's rookie pool. About $1.6 million of that is one-year offers to restricted free agents JoJuan Armour, Cory Hall and Nick Williams at $563,000 each.

Armour, the starting strong safety, has been talking to the club about a multi-year extension. He turned down one proposal and agent Michael Sullivan said Friday he is readying a counter offer.

Don Yee, the agent for the Bengals' only free-agent starter in cornerback Artrell Hawkins, said Friday it's "wait-and-see," as his client prepares to go into the market. Hawkins turned down the Bengals' most recent offer and as Yee said, "It's one of three things. Their offer was too low. Our proposal was too high. Or it was both. We'll see what happens."

Hawkins is not only looking for a new contract, but a new birth certificate. The NFL has always reported his birth date as Nov. 24, 1975, but it is actually Nov. 24, 1976. He's not sure if his six looked like a five when he filled out his forms, but all he knows is that he's 25 and not 26.

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