Bengals guard Palmer

3-26-04, 10:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

No, he's not Warren Sapp. But when the Bengals agreed to terms with Eagles guard Bobbie Williams Friday, it was the kind of three-year deal that solid teams like the Patriots do all the time in free agency.

Not a big name because he started just one game before last season. But a good player with an even better future who wanted to play for the people that recruited him no matter the insignia on the helmet.

The Williams signing probably shuts down the Bengals in free agency until after June 1 (and the possible pursuit of a big-time defensive tackle if Darryl Gardener gets his wish), and they didn't get the big name again. But they did get three new starters with Williams penciled in at right guard, Nate Webster at middle linebacker, and Kim Herring at safety.

"Even before free agency, when we were making plans if we lost (Mike) Goff, he was the guy we wanted to replace him," said Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander. "The biggest thing you have to do in free agency is find guys who fit you and this guy really fits us. Not many guys in this league can get movement at the line of scrimmage and he can. With him next to Willie (Anderson), that makes for a very interesting combination."

That makes for nearly 700 pounds of man on the right side of the line between the 320-pound

Williams and the 340-pound Pro Bowl tackle Anderson, a veritable mosh pit for a masher himself in running back Rudi Johnson.

"I hear the restaurants are nervous," said Howard Shatsky, one of Williams' agents.

Although they are going to miss Goff's experience and his fine pass-protecting after he signed with San Diego, the Bengals feel like they have significantly helped their running game with the addition of Williams' strength and explosion. And the running game has taken on added importance with the promotion of a first-time quarterback in Carson Palmer.

"I'm all about the running game. I'm a big advocate of the running game," Williams said. "To tell you the truth, that's one of the main reasons I wanted to come here. Put me aside big Willie and it's nice."

Williams spent Wednesday and Thursday getting courted by Bills offensive line coach Jim McNally, one of Alexander's gurus, and he also had some interest from the Dolphins and a couple of other teams. Williams came highly recommended by Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier after he watched him develop behind a Pro Bowler in Jermane Mayberry during his first three seasons in Philadelphia.

"I know our coaches there were impressed with the way he developed over the years and that he came into his own last year," Frazier said. "He fits our team character-wise as a person."

Williams, impressed with the pitch of an offense on the come from Alexander and head coach Marvin Lewis, emerged as a starter this past season when Mayberry got hurt. He started the last nine games, two playoff games that included the NFC championship game, and is the 12th player signed by Lewis with playoff experience.

"My time there wasn't a waste, that's for sure," said Williams, who has 11 career starts. "When I sat down with the coaches, I really felt like I was going to get an opportunity to be a part of a team on the rise."

Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski couldn't hide his happiness Friday. Anything to make things easier for Palmer. Williams helped the Eagles to the ninth best rushing game in the NFL last season, but he had to be no slouch against the pass. Philly allowed only 1.9 sacks per game in the second half of the season.

"He's a big powerful man whose best football should be ahead of him," Bratkowski said. "He's a real plus for us in the running game. He can make something happen at the point of attack and that makes things easier in the red zone and on the goal line."

Bratkowski is extremely excited about the depth across the front. They have two first-round tackles in Anderson and Levi Jones on the left. They have two second-round guards in second-year left guard Eric Steinbach and Williams, the 61st pick in the 2000 draft. Center Rich Braham was a third-round pick 10 years ago before the Cardinals cut him his rookie season.

It also makes them a little younger up front. Steinbach is the potential back-up left tackle, with the fourth-year Victor Leyva and second-year Scott Kooistra probably backing up Williams.

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