Bengals eye big names

3-2-01 BY GEOFF HOBSON

After failing to make progress with the Bengals in the Scott Mitchell negotiations Thursday, agent Tony Agnone scanned the list of cuts from NFL teams the past week and said, "It's like Dunkirk out there with the people jumping into the boats."

With half the NFL teams frantically cutting players until 4 p.m. Thursday to get below the league's $67.4 million salary cap, the state of Ohio began Friday's foray into free agency with the biggest arsenal in the bank.

Cincinnati's Bengals and Cleveland's Browns began the day each with about $15 million under the cap. But they had different ideas how and where to spend it on the biggest free-agent field in history.

Plus, it's the first year the Bengals can court free agents with a facility players like right tackle Willie Anderson say can help dispel the brutal image the Bengals have around the league.

"It's a beautiful place. I think it's the best in the NFL and now we can use it to our advantage," Anderson said. "We have to sell it hard. And I think a lot of the older guys will want to play on grass. I think we'll be able to do some things."

The Bengals have a history of first-day activity in free agency. They signed defensive end Michael Bankston on Day One a few years ago and nearly plucked cornerback Jeff Burris away from the Colts with a staggering four-year, $20 million offer.

No one doubts Bengals president Mike Brown's desire to get two to three free agents. But the question is, how much will he spend right away?

He has already said he won't change his philosophy and refuses to dole out huge bonuses for players who won't be around at the end of the contract.

But the Bengals' wish list is pricey. It's topped with a pass-rushing defensive end, a run-stuffing defensive tackle, and a quarterback who can push Akili Smith for the starting job.

The club figures to make inquiries Friday to the top defensive ends on the board in Buffalo's Marcellus Wiley, Tennessee's Kenny Holmes and Arizona's Simeon Rice.

And it looks like they can be pretty aggressive with Seahawks quarterback Jon Kitna because of a unique connection with a Bengals' blast from the past in former No. 1 pick Jack Thompson.

The Browns, on the other hand, need a running back. But word from Cleveland Thursday is new coach Butch Davis is lukewarm about pursuing Bengals Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon and 49ers running back Charlie Garner may already be planning a visit this weekend.

Dillon has waited 14 months for Friday. It was back on Jan. 2, 2000, after a season-ending loss in Jacksonville, that he first proclaimed he wanted to play for a winner.

But the Bengals plan to match any offer their transition free agent receives and the league buzz is waiting for a team other than Cleveland to get into the Dillon derby.

The Bengals plan to make a lot of calls Friday, but no deals as each side feels the other out. Then again, this isn't a traditional year.

That's pretty obvious from the full-court press they plan to put on former Bills defensive tackle Ted Washington during his visit next week.

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After defensive line coach Tim Krumrie meets Washington at the airport, they will join Bengals defensive linemen Oliver Gibson and Vaughn Booker for dinner. Then Gibson and Booker will take Washington back to the hotel for a chat.

In addition to Washington, the Bengals would probaby love to make an appointment with former Viking John Randle. Randle is 33 and Washington will be 33, but that seems to be the one position age doesn't matter.

And it's got to be a given there's a spot for former Redskins tackle Dana Stubblefield on their agenda. Stubblefield, a No. 1 pick of the Niners two years after they picked Washingon first, is a massive Cincinnati product from Taylor High School who turns 31 late in the season.

Kitna may be a Tacoma, Wash., product, but he's got a local tie, too. He went to Thompson's football camp when he was in ninth grade.

Thompson, the Washington State quarterback first nicknamed "The Throwin' Samoan," liked what he saw and kept tabs on him.

Small world? The Bengals' new offensive coordinator, Bob Bratkowski, was one of Thompson's receiving targets at Washington State. And in Bratkowski's last
season as Seattle's offensive coordinator in 1998, Kitna started the last five games and was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for a 298-yard passing effort against Tennessee.

"Brat hasn't been able to talk to me or Jon, but he's been able to talk to Jack about him and he should," said Carl Lopez, Kitna's agent who represented Thompson after the Bengals took him No. 1 in 1979.

"In fact, that's how the idea about the Bengals came up first last month," Lopez said. "Jack mentioned it. He's always had good memories of Cincinnati. And Bob was there when Jon got his first big break. It's a good relationship."

Lopez said Kitna would have no trouble competing with Smith for the starting job. Not after coming undrafted out of Central Washington and leading his hometown team to its first playoff berth in 11 seasons in 1999.

"He didn't come from where he's come from and done what he's done without being competitive," Lopez said.

The Bengals have given no indication they will claim Chargers quarterback Ryan Leaf off waivers or pursue 38-year-old quarterback Doug Flutie, the former Buffalo Bill. They no doubt are interested in former Chiefs quarterback Elvis Grbac, but not at his reported asking price of $8 million per year that includes $20 million up front.

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