3-27-01, 1:25 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
PALM DESERT, Calif. _ The Bengals gave their last, best offer to Todd Steussie Monday night and they hope they have a new left tackle by some time Tuesday.
But the formidable shadow of the Denver Broncos hangs over the negotiations when agent David Dunn discusses the Bengals' new proposal with Steussie Tuesday morning and meets with Broncos' officials here at the league's annual meeting.
"The Bengals raised their offer, but I don't know what that means when I talk to Todd," Dunn said.
"He enjoyed his visit there and he's intrigued by Cincinnati."
Denver has less salary cap room than the Bengals by more than $5 million, according to national reports. But the Broncos' history is luring players with sizeable signing bonuses and a minimum salary in the first year of a five-to-seven-year deal that creates a low cap figure. And those close to Steussie say he favors the perennial playoff Broncos. The Bengals try to put as much first-year money into salary as they do bonus.
"I want to get things settled as soon as possible, but clearly a process has to be played out," Steussie said Monday night from his Minnesota home. "The Bengals seem to want to speed things up, so we'll see what happens."
The Bengals are gunning for their third free agent to join former Vikings defensive tackle Tony Williams and Seahawks quarterback Jon Kitna. Counting the re-signings of their own free agents in center Rich Braham and left guard Matt O'Dwyer, the Bengals have dropped about $10 million in bonus in deals totaling nearly $30 million in the three weeks of free agency.
But Steussie, 30, a two-time Pro Bowler, would be the Bengals' most significant signing since the advent of free agency eight years ago. He says he's not swayed by Denver's sterling track record and the Bengals' decade-long losing.
"In this league, you can turn it around pretty fast," Steussie said. "Denver's been good for a long time, but who's to say they won't begin losing again? The fact that Cincinnati has been struggling, that doesn't mean much to me. It matters, but I had a good visit with (Bengals President) Mike Brown and I enjoyed the coaches."
It's ironic, but Steussie's circumstances impact heavily the situation of Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon. They are both represented by Dunn and he also represents left tackle Leonard Davis, the nation's top left tackle prospect.
"We madeTodd the best offer we could keeping in mind (matching for) Corey," said Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn. "We felt it was a good, fair offer. That if he took it, we could still take Corey and be able to manage the rest of the team. We hope they accept it. We're just waiting right now."
Acknowledging Davis, Dunn laughed when he said to the Bengals, "No matter what happens, I'll have your left tackle."