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Bengals check out Jones, corners

3-15-02, 7:20 p.m.


While the Bengals entertained erstwhile Chargers tight end Freddie Jones Friday, they threw their hat in the ring for the man who has the most interceptions in the NFL the past six seasons. But they figure to have plenty of company when the Donnie Abraham sweepstakes heat up next week.

Jack Reale, Abraham's agent, confirmed Friday inquiries from Oakland, Seattle and Cincinnati. But with the NFL's annual meeting running this Sunday through Wednesday in Orlando, Fla., Reale doesn't expect to firm up visits or offers until next week. The Bengals already have a visit set up with Colts cornerback Jeff Burris for next Friday and are pursuing a visit from Arizona corner Corey Chavous. They hope their policy of patience may yield them highly-accomplished players who are salary-cap casualties of other teams and suddenly bolt out on the market like Abraham did Thursday night.

But they are also continuing their quest to re-sign the man who started 13 games for them at right cornerback this past season. Indications are the club has pushed the Artrell Hawkins negotiations to the top part of the priority list, but he apparently won't make a decision from among the Bengals, Steelers, Patriots and Seahawks until he visits Minnesota. That probably won't be until after the meetings.

Meanwhile, the ebullient Jones charmed the Bengals with a winning personality and his 106 catches and nine touchdowns over the past two seasons. But at the moment, the Bengals seem to be thinking more about cornerbacks than $3 million per year tight ends.

Which is how much Washington's Stephen Alexander got to come along with coach Marty Schottenheimer from the Redskins to replace Jones in San Diego.

The 6-5, 270-pound Jones, 27, had a monster year in 2000 with 71 catches. But after fighting through defenses for 35 balls this past season, he's looking at teams like Cincinnati.

"I always wanted to be part of a team that has a lot of weapons," Jones said. "So that in every game, you're not getting double teamed or you're not getting the zone coming your way. Just looking at the talent on this team. . .you don't want to be on a team where you're the only go-to guy and everybody locks on you.

"You got a lot of guys like Peter

Warrick, Darnay Scott, (Ron) Dugans, Corey Dillon," Jones said. "There's a lot of talent on offense they can spread out and get guys open. This is one situation I'm looking for right now."

Jones is also looking at the situations in New England, Arizona, and Seattle. And he's looking more at football. His wife, Miesha, has accompanied him on most of his trips to learn about the city. But he said the process has worn her out and she stayed in San Diego this time. But Jones got instructions to learn Cincinnati.

:"I went out yesterday and hung out in the town a little bit. It's a great town," said Jones, who grew up just outside Washington D.C., and went to college at North Carolina. "I don't want to say blue collar, but it seems like it has a tough feel about it. It seems a lot like Washington D.C., like home. I guess I'm not used to that coming from the West Coast. I've been there so long, like I'm a surf guy or something."

The Bengals would love to have him surfing on the Ohio River. Jim Lippincott, Bengals director of pro/college personnel, says: "He's a powerful blocker who stays on his feet with contact. He's got soft hands and he's a big target. He's what you want in a tight end."

But the Bengals don't look ready to sign a tight end until after the draft. Right now, the priority appears to be signing a cornerback and re-signing sack leader Reinard Wilson.

David Levine, Wilson's agent, denied reports the Vikings have lost interest in his client. Wilson's cause may or may not be hurt in Indianapolis after Bears cornerback Walt Harris signed a five-year, $15 million deal with a team that had less than $3 million under the salary cap. But on Friday the Colts probably conjured up about another $2 million in cap room when they reached a long-term deal with their franchise free-agent, left tackle Tarik Glenn.

Money is the major reason that Abraham, 28,got let go by the Buccaneers Thursday night.. The Bucs , who owed him a $500,000 bonus Friday, saved $4.1 million by cutting him. Those close to Abraham theorize there were financial reasons why Abraham was pushed out of the starting lineup by Brian Kelly this past season. In only five starts, Abraham still had six interceptions. His 31 career interceptions in the past six years (20 in the last three seasons), is the Tampa Bay record.

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