Bengals match up in QB sweepstakes

2-16-02, 11:25 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals have taken what they call "a significant," hit with news that each team has $700,000 less to spend this season than originally thought.

But Bengals President Mike Brown said Saturday the change in the salary cap is not major enough to alter the team's off-season priorities, which appear to be improving quarterback production and shoring up cornerback.

Yet with ESPN.com reporting the cap is now set at $71.101 million instead of $71.8 million, the cap crunch could mean other quarterbacks beyond The Big Two join the mix sooner rather than later. Jacksonville's Mark Brunell and Buffalo's Rob Johnson continue to be the center of published speculation that they will join Drew Bledsoe and Trent Dilfer as available by getting released because of mega contracts.

"It happens every year," said the general manager of another AFC team this week. "Players get released as teams try to come to terms with their cap. You usually get a chance at more free agents than you originally thought as the offseason goes along. It's too early. You just don't know until things unfold when free agency gets going and teams have to get under the cap on March 1."

The crunch is also another minus against trading for a player with a big cap number and another plus for working out a more cap-friendly deal with a free agent

Even still, it appears the Bengals could try to get a quarterback both ways until they land one. Brown has yet to approach another team about a trade, but that doesn't mean he won't by the time free agency opens March 1.

With published reports linking the Bengals to the Bledsoe trade rumors, as well as interest in free agent Trent Dilfer, Brown indicated this week the club could find a new quarterback by keeping their options open.

"We could pursue more than one opportunity and even one simultaneously at the same position and what happens first happens," Brown said. "We have to see how it goes. We could get one free agent that takes up all the cap room or we could get four that take up the room. You don't know."

Brown can't talk about specific quarterbacks until March 1 and he can never talk about players under contract with another club. But he can talk to, say, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick now about trading for Bledsoe and his $5 million salary as long as the deal isn't done until March 1.

Yet Brown said this weekend he hasn't talked trade with anyone and he hasn't decided yet if he will.

Brown indicated two weeks ago he is cautious about swinging a trade for a quarterback because of the double trouble of a big salary cap hit and losing a player or a draft pick. The $700,000 shrinkage has heightened the caution. But with the Bears and Redskins shaping up as the biggest competitors for the big name quarterbacks, the Bengals can more than compete with Chicago and Washington when it comes to cap room and offensive weapons.

According to ESPN.com, the Bengals have about $10 million to spend, the Redskins $11 million, and the Bears $12 million. But Cincinnati is the only one of the three with every offensive starter signed heading into March 1 The Bears have two unsigned offensive starters and the Redskins have six that includes their top two quarterbacks. Plus, the

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Bengals are the only team that knows its offensive line will return intact.

In fact, the Bengals are the only team that hits all the checkpoints:

_Stadium at the same site as the practice facility.

_Intact line that gave up the NFL's fifth fewest sacks.

_Pro Bowl running back in Corey Dillon.

_A stable of wide receivers that is young and inconsistent, but deep and healthy with high-round draft picks.

_A top 10 defense.

_Opportunity to start.

"The big thing a quarterback looks at is the chance to play and I would think the people he is going to have around him," said the AFC GM. "Really, the Bengals aren't very far away from being a very good team. (Head coach) Dick LeBeau has done a good job making them into a team. You would think they would have a lot of the things a quarterback is looking for."

The Redskins can come courting with new head coach Steve Spurrier and a high-flying, cutting-edge offense that is going to be built around the quarterback. Plus, they have the NFL's leading rusher in Stephen Davis and two of the best tackle-tandems in the league in Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen. And the only quarterback on their roster is someone named Sage Rosenfels.

"Cincinnati is as attractive as any of them," said agent David Levine, who represents the most Bengals. "The thing with Washington is you know Spurrier is going to pass the ball and that the Bengals are always going to be Corey Dillon's team."

But with Michael Westbrook a free agent, there is no one to throw to except rookie receiver Rod Gardner.

The Bears can recruit with a 13-3 playoff team, an offensive line that gave up the fewest sacks in the league with 17, and a 1,000-yard back in Anthony Thomas. But their best lineman, center Olin Kreutz, is a free agent, and while their receivers are talented, they have suffered some serious injuries.

There is also talk the Bears could re-sign quarterback Jim Miller at a decent price and concentrate on locking up Kreutz and four key restricted free agents in wide receiver Marty Booker, guard Rex Tucker and linebackers Warrick Holdman and Roosevelt Colvin.

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