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Bengals, NFL enter new world Friday

Johnathan Joseph

The last time the Bengals went into free agency off an AFC North title, they pretty much stayed in their own building and re-signed or extended the contracts of their own. Now in the hot house uncertainty of 2010 and 2011, look for more of the same when the NFL's brave, new world opens Friday.

The height of the Bengals' activity in the market may come even before it starts when they announce the tenders to their restricted free agents Thursday. They are expected to dole out about $11-13 million in one-year offers to keep the right to match more than a dozen players.

Going off that '06 offseason, the road map says they'll approach guys whose contracts aren't up yet instead of luring free agents from other teams. Those candidates range from cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph to center Kyle Cook to running back Cedric Benson, among others.  

With no salary cap for this season and no guarantee of a next season, no one quite knows what to expect league wide. Oh, the Redskins or somebody are probably going to sign Julius Peppers in the wee hours of Friday morning to a contract that dwarfs the budget of the six New England states. But other than that there is no conventional wisdom or, for that matter, even unconventional.

What we do know is that the new rules in this uncapped year - where there is no floor or ceiling teams must hit - mean that the normal field of unrestricted free agents has been cut in half because only players with six seasons of experience are eligible and not the usual four. So the fifth- and fourth-year guys are now restricted and while some believe that means more action in restricted free agency, others aren't so sure because the cost is draft picks.

Indeed, the theme last week at the NFL scouting combine was conservative when it came to both restricted and unrestricted free agency.

"It's bad timing for us because everybody's thinking 'Our first five picks are going to be Pro Bowl players,' '' said Tom Heckert, the new Browns personnel man under Mike Holmgren. "No one wants to give up draft picks. That's just the way the NFL works. You're so excited about drafting guys coming out that you're saying, instead of giving up a second-, third- or fourth-round pick, you think you can get a better guy in the draft.

"And obviously there's a financial difference in what you're paying second- or third-round guys and you're probably going to have to go after restricted guys just to get them. I would think there would be a little more movement just because the number is less, but people just don't want to give up draft picks."

The Bengals no doubt fall into that camp. Head coach Marvin Lewis made it pretty clear at the combine that the Bengals would try to re-sign their own players in both the unrestricted and restricted categories.

Shayne Graham, the club's most accurate kicker of all time, leads the UFAs and earlier this week a combine source said Graham is most likely gone because he'll find a team that is going to pay him Rob Bironas money, which is $12 million over four years. The Bengals would like him back, but not for $3 million per and probably not $2.48 million, the salary they paid him last year as the club's franchise free agent. They've already covered themselves by signing veteran Dave Rayner.

That seems about where the Bengals are with the rest of their UFAs: Right guard Bobbie Williams, tight end Reggie Kelly, fullback Jeremi Johnson, safety Roy Williams, defensive tackle Tank Johnson, and running back Larry Johnson.

Except for Larry Johnson, who probably wants to move on, they'd like everyone back. But no one knows what the market is in this climate because not many players have re-upped around the league.

"Talking to the agents for our players," Heckert said, "they don't know how it's going to work out."

For instance two guys the Bengals would love to get back because of their experience and locker room leadership are Bobbie Williams and Kelly. But Williams turns 34 in September, they have two young starting guards in Nate Livings and Evan Mathis, and they figure to draft another guard. Kelly is 33 and is coming off a ruptured Achilles and while the Bengals desperately need his experience at the position, they also plan to pursue J.P. Foschi, his agent said, when he tweeted the Bengals didn't tender him. And they figure to draft a tight end to go along with last year's third-round pick Chase Coffman.

The Bengals would also like to retain Jeremi Johnson, but he turns 30 this spring and Fui Vakapuna, last year's seventh-round pick, is still on the roster. Same with Roy Williams. They liked what he did last year before he reinjured his forearm, but they may be cautious because he has played just seven games in the last two years.

Tank Johnson is now represented by Drew Rosenhaus, a quick triggerman, and that could get the Bengals into some Friday action.

"Free agency is going to be completely different this year," Cleveland's Heckert said. "Especially because we don't know what the future holds. It's going to be a little bit of a wait-and-see approach for everybody."

Giants general manager Jerry Reese also thinks the caution flag is going to be out.

"You always see some teams jump out there and make some moves," he said. "But with the uncertainty of everything going on, the unrest of everything going on, I think people will be cautious."

The Bengals clearly have a need for a starting wide receiver to go opposite Chad Ochocinco. But with the rules limiting the UFA field to older players and the club still digesting last year's signing of 31-year-old receiver Laveranues Coles, it would not figure that they would be particularly active in an early market.

The youngest UFA receiver is the Texans' Kevin Walter, 27, a good No. 2 opposite Andre Johnson and a good friend of Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer. But since the Bengals let him go as a restricted free agent four years ago, it's doubtful they'd bring him back with the same coaches.

The irony of The Ocho lobbying for fellow receiver Terrell Owens is that the Bengals may have to look at extending Ochocinco rather than trying to ink a big money receiver like Owens or Broncos RFA Brandon Marshall. Ochocinco's contract is up in 2011 (if the Bengals exercise an option) and they have yet to find his heir apparent.

Plus, Owens turns 37 in December. Only one Bengals wide receiver in history has caught a ball at the age of 33: Isaac Curtis. The Ocho is more likely to do it than T.O. After that, the combustible Antonio Bryant turns 29. The Bills' Josh Reed turns 30. Chris Chambers was drafted in the same round as the Ocho.

If the Bengals are looking at the draft to fill, they aren't alone.

"I sense that we are a lot more focused, seemingly this year on draft preparation," said Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff. "Usually we take this in cycles or segments. This was definitely a free agent segment leading up to beginning of free agency. Now we tend to be focusing on the draft, that much earlier. I will be interested to see how much interest there is going into free agency with the fewer numbers."

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