3-1-02, 6:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
INDIANAPOLIS _The Bengals came out throwing in their bid for a new quarterback Friday when they touched base with four free-agent prospects and tried to put together a recruiting visit early next week from Super Bowl ring bearer Trent Dilfer.
The Bengals also made contact with the agents for cornerbacks Duane Starks and Walt Harris, defensive ends Kenny Mixon and Renaldo Wynn, safety Sam Garnes, and tight end Stephen Alexander.
But as Bengals director of business development Troy Blackburn shuttled between workouts here Friday at the NFL scouting combine and the Westin Hotel, it became clear the club put an emphasis on the quarterback position.
While Blackburn spoke several times Friday with Dilfer's agent, Michael Sullivan, the Bengals also had contact with the agents for the Bears' Jim Miller, the Falcons' Chris Chandler, and the Ravens Elvis Grbac.
The Bengals very nearly signed Grbac a year ago this week. Baltimore cut him less than a year after he turned down Blackburn's proposal that agent Jim Steiner said dwarfed the Ravens' contract in the first two years.
Steiner said then the deal pretty much evened out over the long haul, but Grbac didn't make the $13 million he would have been assured of making if he played two seasons in Baltimore.
The Bengals were apparently in touch with Steiner again Friday during an ironic day they also spoke with Dilfer, the Ravens' Super Bowl quarterback jilted for Grbac. The Bengals are attracted to Dilfer's big-play 19-1 record as a starter in his last 20 games that goes with 26 touchdown passes that have traveled an average of 31 yards.
"It's been courteous and instructive and we're keeping at it," Sullivan said of the talks from his Bay Area office. "It's always harder than you think it's going to be, but it's to be expected. I'm trying to get the best deal for my client and Troy is trying to get the best deal for his team."
Sullivan has indicated Dilfer's goal isn't so much money, but a situation in which his performance over the past three seasons with Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Seattle is
recognized by another team that anoints him the No. 1 quarterback.
The Bengals, a team that has had four different Opening Day quarterbacks in the past four seasons, sound open to the idea because of Dilfer's penchant for completing long passes. In Jon Kitna's last 20 games (the last 16 with the Bengals), he has no touchdown passes of at least 40 yards and three of at least 20. Dilfer has 10 of at least 40 and 15 of at least 20 yards in his last 20 games in which he has gone 4-0 for the Buccaneers in 1999, 11-1 for the Ravens in 2000, and 4-0 for the Seahawks last season.
"He's a guy who would help us," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "Some people seem lukewarm about him, but from what we can see, he certainly hasn't screwed it up for anybody lately with that great record. He's got excellent accuracy down the field, he's a big guy and he's got a lot of experience."
With the Bengals figuring there is only about $30 million available throughout the NFL, Blackburn isn't looking to use up all the club's free-agent money on a quarterback. The Redskins have also expressed an interest in Dilfer, but have said they won't go above $3 million per year.
"We're not looking to sign just a quarterback," Blackburn said. "We want to add a few players at a variety of positions."
The Bengals have no visits lined up yet for next week, but director of pro/college personnel Jim Lippincott spent Friday trying to frame a few recruiting trips.
Drew Rosenhaus, Starks' agent, said he's getting heavy interest from an Oakland team anticipating the retirement of Eric Allen and while he's not sure the Bengals are going to be on the same pay scale, he'll keep the team in touch. Mixon, the Dolphins' run stuffer at left end, is also represented by Rosenhaus and has had feelers from Green Bay, Minnesota, and Buffalo.
Mixon wouldn't replace the nine sacks of pass rushing end Reinard Wilson, but he would make the Bengals much younger at a spot currently manned by 34-year-old Vaughn Booker.
The agent for Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins said Friday his client received interest from several teams on the first day of free agency. David Levine, Wilson's agent, had no comment, but said he would keep the Bengals posted.