Bengals eye options

3-3-01 BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals are worried enough about free-agent running back Corey Dillon that they have left a massive pad under their salary cap to match any offers.

But there was virtually no peep around the NFL about Dillon Friday. Signs from Cleveland indicated there isn't any immediate interest or a looming unmatchable deal for Cincinnati's one Pro Bowler, and agent Leigh Steinberg couldn't be reached for comment.

But maybe something will happen after linebackers Jamie Sharper and Dwayne Rudd visit the Browns because the club reportedly cancelled Niners running back Charlie Garner's visit.

So the Bengals were able to focus on the busiest first day of free agency in their history.

They didn't get a deal done, but Bengals vice president Paul Brown and director of business development Troy Blackburn booked next week solid with recruiting visits by the top defensive linemen and quarterbacks on everyone's board.

In the past, the Bengals have waited for two or three weeks to host before courting the players on the next tier.

But as if to underscore the urgency of a free-agent period in which the Bengals have the most cap room with the most free agents ever, the club is uncharacteristically holding weekend visits this Saturday and Sunday for quarterbacks Elvis Grbac and Gus Frerotte.

Blackburn, Bengals president Mike Brown's son-in-law who was the club's point man in stadium negotiations, is in charge of quarterbacks in his first role as contract negotiator.

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Meanwhile, Paul Brown sandwiched former Bills defensive tackle Ted Washington's stop Monday and Cincinnati product Dana Stubblefield's homecoming next Friday with visits from Jason Ferguson of the Jets and Tony Williams of the Vikings.

Still, the Bengals are putting more of a premium on pass-rushing ends. CNN/SI reports the club is also trying to nail down a visit from Titans defensive end Kenny Holmes, but his agent couldn't be reached.

Brad Blank, the agent for hotly pursued Bills defensive end Marcellus Wiley and his 10.5 sacks, intimated some numbers that could cool the Bengals.

The club did call Blank though, but his client was already headed to a meeting with San Diego and the only other teams Blank mentioned for a visit are Oakland and Seattle with the possibility Buffalo could re-sign him.

"The organization is clearly committed to doing everything we can to win football games now," Blackburn said. "We're going to explore what possibilities there are in free agency. We've got a lot of options in front of us and what we're going to do in the near term is assess what those options are and get the best information we can on those and try to make intelligent decisions on what direction we want to go."

Published reports put the Bengals under the cap at about $15 million. But after taking into account their rookie pool, the pad for Dillon, and the allotment for injured players and grievances, the club has about half that to spend on free agents.

The Bengals' moves on Friday revealed their hope to bolster the roster in the next week with a quarterback and a defensive lineman, and then fill in at spots such as center, cornerback and receiver.

For instance, Bears backup center Casey Wiegmann is visiting the club next week, according to his agent. And the agent for Titans cornerback Denard Walker said the Bengals want to set up a visit with his client.

"There's a lot of different ways we can go," Blackburn said. "We can try to make two big splashes and then wait until after June 1 for more cuts. Or we could get about five or six lesser known players who are solid and will contribute for a long time."

The Bengals haven't indicated when they will start making offers, but it will probably be during or after the players' visit.

Jimmy Sexton, the agent for Ferguson and Williams, said his clients have an open mind about coming to a team that has struggled for the past decade. The Bengals would also probably love to get a trip out of Pro Bowl tackle Jon Randle, the former Viking.

The 6-2, 315-pound Stubblefield is an intriguing story. Stubblefield, a former first-round pick out of Taylor High School and Kansas, was a victim of the Redskins' purge to get under the salary cap.

The Bengals flipped on film Thursday and liked what they saw from a player who doesn't turn 31 until November.

But will Stubblefield like them? His agent, Neil Cornrich, sees his client as this year's Sam Adams. Adams is the defensive tackle who was the victim of changes in Seattle last year and turned out to be a key signing in Baltimore's run to the Super Bowl.

"That's where we think Dana can be," Cornrich said. "A Pro Bowl and Super Bowl."

Asked if that would take the Bengals out of the mix, Cornrich said, "Dana thinks it's an honor to be able to visit and be considered for playing back in his hometown."

With center Rich Braham unsigned, Wiegmann, 25, is an interesting visit. He started the last eight games for the Bears this past season and has Bengals' ties.

He played at Iowa with right guard Mike Goff and knows offensive line coach Paul Alexander from the scouting trail.

Agent Rick Smith said Wiegmann is also scheduled to visit Detroit and Kansas City.

Blackburn, who survived 18 months of the lethal grinding of stadium lease talks with Hamilton County, looked barely ruffled Friday.

"It's the same thing," Blackburn said. "You try to talk to folks and understand what they have in mind. You try to get as much information as you can to see if we've got a match or not."

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