Bengals, market brake

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals aren't ruling anybody out or anybody in as free agency heads into its second week.

All they know is when they look up at their free-agency board, they see 50 starting players, including nine defensive tackles. And with the NFL's incredible shrinking salary cap, they think the asking price has come to them.

So eight-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy and Steelers linebacker Levon Kirkland are possibilities. But not now.

"The market's slowed and we're going to slow with it," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of pro/college personnel.

The Bengals are in the hunt for the best pass rushers on the market in Kenny Holmes and Simeon Rice and the most sought after center in Jeff Mitchell. But Holmes is talking to the Giants, Rice is talking to Tampa Bay and probably visiting Chicago, and Mitchell could sign a deal in Carolina as early as Monday.

"We think people are going to sit back and evaluate and that's what we'll do this weekend," Lippincott said. "The money is getting a little tighter. There's been a rash of spending and we've been a part of it."

The signings of Seattle quarterback Jon Kitna and Vikings defensive tackle Tony Williams figure to leave the Bengals about $10.5 million under the salary cap, national sources indicate. Including the pad to match on a Corey Dillon contract, they can probably get two or three more starters.

The Bengals have indicated they're not going to drop Marcellus Wiley money like San Diego did ($9 million up front and $40 million over six years) on a pass rusher. So if the Bengals can't get that impact sack man at their price, they appear to be trying to pick off a left tackle and cornerback. Packers lineman Ross Verba visits Monday, cornerbacks Ronde Barber and DeRon Jenkins Tuesday and cornerback Walt Harris Wednesday.

The defensive tackle market has been pretty much set. The Patriots' Chad Eaton went to Seattle on a Williams-like $11 million deal that reports say included a $4 million bonus. Jason Ferguson got $1 million more guaranteed in re-signing with the Jets in a $12.7 million deal.

Rice visited Paul Brown Stadium Friday and called the Bengals situation "intriguing." Rice is just as intriguing to the Bengals. He gets ripped for not playing the run, but he consistently racks up double-digit sack seasons with a unique ability to somehow get to the passer.

The last Bengal to get 10 sacks in a season? Alfred Williams with 10 even in 1992.

"I'm on this world tour now," Rice said. "I want to see how I truly fit. I'm looking to be the best I can be in this game. . .(The Bengals) look like they're trying to bring in some impact players who can take them to the next level."

MCKNIGHT SHINING: Cowboys receiver James McKnight also visited Friday and he's got plenty of supporters at PBS. He's fast, tough, experienced, his reconstructed knee is intact, and he's coming off a 52-catch season that included eight against Cincinnati.

Plus, he played with Kitna and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski in Seattle.

But he's also talking pretty intensely with his hometown Miami Dolphins.

"With Jon here and Bob here, it would certainly make that decision all that much easier," McKnight said.

The one knock against McKnight is his age of 29. But that doesn't seem to bother the Dolphins and the Bengals found out last year that veteran receivers have value.

McKnight on Kitna: "He has that will to win. His whole thing is he wants to win at whatever cost. He's competitive, a hard-nosed guy, very strong-willed."

CD UPDATE: At least one Cleveland-area newspaper is saying the Browns are thinking of taking a look at signing Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon to an offer sheet next week. The Browns may indeed be up to something. They've got about the same amount of cap room as the Bengals and have been fairly quiet since signing linebacker Dwayne Rudd.

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