Bengals let go Booker

4-1-03, 2:10 p.m. Updated:
4-2-03, 3:15 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

After upgrading their defensive line in free agency, the Bengals continued to re-shape their defense when they terminated the contract of veteran defensive end Vaughn Booker Tuesday.

Booker, 35, who missed 19 games because of injury or illness in his three seasons with the club, had been scheduled to make $2 million this year. But when they signed defensive end Carl Powell from Washington and defensive tackle John Thornton from Tennessee last month, the Bengals felt they had made the needed improvements on a defensive front that finished 22nd in the NFL against the run.

That was the only transaction Tuesday as the Bengals continue to sift through possible free agents. Word out of Seattle is that the Seahawks have enough interest in restricted free-agent kicker Neil Rackers to possibly bring him in for a visit in the near future. There was no word from the Andy McCollum camp Tuesday if the Rams' center had signed with the Patriots, and there were no indications the Bengals were interested enough to extend an invitation to visit.

Booker, a graduate of Cincinnati's Taft High School, had talked about the possibility of retiring during last season as he suffered injuries to his ankle, knee, and rib cage. But on Tuesday he and his agent talked about continuing his nine-year NFL career. After meeting with new head coach Marvin Lewis last month, Booker thought there might be a chance he would do it here. But he also knew with a new coach there are going to be changes.

"The three years with the Bengals had started to wear on me, but when Coach Lewis got here, I thought I could muster up another year to play for him but it didn't turn out that way," Booker said. "I knew it was going to be different when he came in, so it wasn't that big of a surprise."

Because Booker had two years left on his five-year contract, the Bengals absorb the final two years of his pro-rated $3.3 million signing bonus under this year's salary cap. They figure to save about $1.3 million under this year's cap with the move, but that doesn't give them much room, if any.

It does put them in the range of having enough to sign their draft choices (figure in the $4-5 million range), but they are still on the lookout for a fullback, possibly a center-guard type, and maybe a backup offensive tackle.

They could make a run at re-signing Bernard Whittington for depth after he made the 11 starts that Booker missed last season, but they also already have a full complement of defensive linemen on the roster. And they might decide they're OK on the offensive line, where backup guards Victor Leyva and Scott Rehberg have experience playing right tackle.

Lewis is seeking to bring some youth to the club, so he doesn't even want to break the needs into positions.

"We're looking for the best player, no matter the combination," Lewis said. "We need to get some young players. Playing for this year is OK, but we have to play football again next year, too. You have to protect your future. If we don't begin that process, our age will begin to catch up to us on the field and the cap. You have to cycle your talent through."

Don't look for Seattle to make a big splash with Rackers in which they would have to surrender a sixth-round pick for him if the Bengals decided not to match an offer. The Seahawks just made virtually no effort to keep their own restricted free-agent kicker, Rian Lindell, when they chose not to match a fairly affordable deal from Buffalo last week.

The Booker move falls in line with Lewis' plans to overhaul the defense. With Powell penciled into start at left end, Thornton working in place of the rehabbing Oliver Gibson, and middle linebacker Brian Simmons moving to the outside with the signing of Cowboys linebacker Kevin Hardy, the Bengals arrive at next week's minicamp with five starters in new spots if former Raider Tory James lines up at corner.

Booker, just one of three Bengals who also played for the Cincinnati Public Schools as well as the University of Cincinnati, joined the Bengals before the 2000 season after helping anchor some playoff lines in Kansas City and Green Bay. When healthy, the Bengals regarded him as a difference-maker in their run defense.

"It was surprising in the sense that when healthy, Vaughn is an extremely productive player, particularly against the run," said agent Richard Katz. "But he had a good three years in his hometown and he's going to move on. We think he's going to have several opportunities to keep on playing."

Booker said he's going to consider playing again once he gets healed up.

"I felt like when I was healthy, I played pretty well for them," Booker said. "I never had the injuries I had when I got here. It's the most injuries I've ever had. We'll see what happens and see if there is some interest out there."

As he leaves, Booker thinks the Bengals are turning it around with the influx of free agents.

"I think they are headed in the right direction with Coach Lewis," Booker said. "They're bringing in some top-notch guys and paying some big money. Coming from winning teams, that was something I saw they had trouble doing, but they seem ready to do that now."

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