Bengals hope youth pays off

Posted: 8:30 p.m.

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Lewis

As the ripples from free agency begin to fan out, the Bengals still aren't looking to make a big splash for a variety of reasons.

One is they are virtually flat against the salary cap and another is that Eric Steinbach's signing in Cleveland countered against a light haul on the market this offseason most likely nets a compensatory third-round pick in 2008. And the way the club has evolved since Marvin Lewis' first season, the odds are it's another draft choice for the defense.

With tight end Reggie Kelly in the fold at what figures to be about a $1.5 million salary, the Bengals could have 10 starters on offense making virtually $1 million in salary this season while the defense may have half that.

The Lewis pattern is holding with the top 10 players in the Bengals salary cap count. Only No. 10—defensive tackle John Thornton—wasn't drafted by the Bengals, according to figures culled from various sources.

It's a theme that has surfaced prominently in the last week. Lewis and the Bengals haven't been the only party coming down against free agency. Check this rant from Pete Prisco on CBSSportsline.com:

"When a so-so tight end (Daniel Graham) gets a contract that makes him the second-highest paid tight end in football, you know it's nuts. When receiver Bobby Wade, a third receiver at best, gets a deal that averages $3 million from the Vikings, you know it's nuts. When Kenyon Coleman, a situational pass rusher, gets a deal from the Jets that includes $7 million in guaranteed money, you know it's nuts. Do these teams have any fiscal responsibility? ... Draft well, and you don't have to spend wildly."

Or Len Pasquarelli on ESPN.com:

"Consider this: In the week preceding the start of the free agency period, NFL teams released 16 players they had signed as free agents only a year earlier. Ten more veterans added as free agents only two years ago were lopped from rosters."

It remains to be seen if the Bengals can master drafting defense and translating it into a winning scheme on the field. But their hopes are tied into the salary cap.

Salary is different than cap count. Cap count is the prorated signing bonus over the life of the deal, plus salary. For instance, quarterback Carson Palmer's salary for '07 is $7.25 million, according to data from the NFL Players Association. But his cap count is in excess of a team-leading $13 million.

Seven of the top 10 cap counters are offensive players with tackle John Thornton and ends Justin Smith and Robert Geathers (not listed as a starter) the only defenders. Nearly $50 million is consumed by the top 10.

With no word on backup safety Kevin Kaesviharn's negotiations or his next visits, the Bengals had time to mull a salary cap that has done a 180 since Lewis arrived in 2003.

That season the bulk of the $1 million players were on defense: cornerbacks Jeff Burris and Tory James, linebackers Brian Simmons and Kevin Hardy, and a defensive line of Duane Clemons, Thornton, Tony Williams and Justin Smith.

Thornton and Smith are the only survivors, although Thornton's deal could change soon. Thornton has been apprised of a possible restructuring and said Wednesday, "Whatever happens I hope it's resolved soon."

But since '03 the Bengals have tipped the money to the offense and in the last three drafts have invested nine first-day draft picks out of a possible 14 on defense, which includes the first three of last year's supplemental draft in which they selected middle linebacker Ahmad Brooks in the third round.

Because of that pick the Bengals don't have a third-rounder this trip. But with Kelly's re-signing, all signs point to defensive players chosen with the first two picks this April 28. That would make running back Chris Perry, wide receiver Chris Henry and left guard Andrew Whitworth the only offensive players selected in the first day in the last four drafts.

While the Bengals wait for those defenders to develop (and two may never play again in linebackers David Pollack and Odell Thurman), they have now given new deals to 10 of their 11 projected offensive starters with center Eric Ghiaciuc working on his rookie contract.

That's if Stacy Andrews, tendered at $1.3 million, ends up starting at left guard. Fullback Jeremi Johnson's new deal has him set to make $900,000 this season.

On defense, safety Dexter Jackson is the only starter in the back seven making at least $1 million in salary at $1 million even, according to the NFLPA. If cornerback Deltha O'Neal retrieves his starting job at $2.5 million, he'll be the sixth starter making at least $1 million in joining Jackson and the defensive line.

Lewis gave a glimpse of how the Bengals view signing premium positions at premium salaries during this week's Hall of Fame Luncheon in Canton, Ohio that he attended with Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn.

In remarks quoted by The Canton Repository, Lewis talked about Cleveland's watershed $7 million per year signing of former Bengals guard Eric Steinbach.

"We want to make sure that I as a head coach and Katie in charge of the cap structure the football team to try to pay the premium positions," Lewis said. "Our quarterback position, our tackles, and our receivers are pretty well paid. And our running back.

"So, structure that way. That's why we weren't able to come to Eric's terms."

With free agency and the offense in full swing, the Bengals don't look to be flinching as they appear to be investing patience as well as youth into the defense.

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