4-23-01, 2:20 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
John Copeland knew it was coming. But like he said last week, "No one wants to get cut."
Which is what happened Monday when the grim reaper called on the dean of the Bengals defense and cut the eight-year defensive end.
Copeland, 30, thought the end was near last week when the Bengals signed Steelers' free-agent end Kevin Henry.
And the end came fittingly when Cincinnati picked Missouri defensive end Justin Smith with the fourth pick in the NFL Draft eight years after taking Copeland with the fifth pick out of Alabama.
But Tim McGee, Copeland's agent, said the Bengals left the door open for his client to return down the road at a reduced rate after Copeland huddled with Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau Monday morning.
"The Bengals handled it with class," McGee said. "Dick talked to him and told him how much he appreciated the fact that he practiced hard and played hard. John wouldn't mind coming back. This has been his home. But he also wants to see what other options are out there."
LeBeau said, "John has been a starter for us since he came here and he's made significant contributions to the Cincinnati Bengals. We all like him."
Copeland played well enough that he's not classified
with the first-round busts he was sandwiched between in David Klingler in 1992 and Dan Wilkinson in 1994. He played hard and solid, but injuries and the decision not to go to an extensive off-season workout program until late in his career prevented him from becoming an elite player.
Copeland was scheduled to make $2.1 million this year and $2.6 million next year. Cutting him now means the Bengals save $1.3 million against this year's salary cap.
McGee said Copeland's one disappointment is that he didn't think he should be judged off last season's performance, when he moved to tackle for the first time in his career because of the injuries inside.
"He gave it up for the team after coming off a season two years ago that might have been his best," McGee said. "But he knows this is business."
Copeland never really recovered from blowing out his Achilles' tendon before the 1998 season, just two months after signing a five-year, $15 million deal. After a near-Pro Bowl season in 1995 with nine sacks, Copeland had 11 since. He had one sack last season and none in '98.
The Bengals are still trying to put together a depth chart for the defensive line, but Smith figures to line up away from the tight end and Henry over the tight end. Booker can play both sides, as can Smith. Another No. 1 pick, defensive end Reinard Wilson, was a candidate to get cut, but the Bengals appear to be going with his youth for the time being.
The Bengals will probably pick up pursuit of a veteran cornerback in free agency in Walt Harris of the Bears and DeRon Jenkins of the Chargers. They also haven't given up on a deal with defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield.