Bengals' own to test waters?

2-14-03, 5:20 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

With free agency opening two weeks from Friday, the Bengals' own free agents look to be headed to the market as Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis continues to feel out his new players.

The biggest name, of course, is linebacker Takeo Spikes, but the club has the right to match any offer because it has put the transition tag on him and heightened the odds of him returning.

According to the NFL office, no transition free agent has moved from a team in this century. The last player to do it was tight end Kyle Brady, when he went from the Jets to the Jaguars in 1999. Since 1997, 15 players have been transitioned and only four have left because their teams didn't match an offer sheet.

The Bengals also have the right to match an offer to center Rich Braham, a player they would probably like back at the right price. But with Braham turning 32 back in November, the club also figures to be on the lookout for a younger center in free agency or the draft.

Lewis thinks the Bengals have a shot at re-signing both fullbacks and maybe securing Lorenzo Neal before free agency starts. But he knows 25-year-old Nicolas Luchey is going to test the waters in his first try.

"Particularly for Nick, it's to his advantage that he probably waits a little bit in free agency," Lewis said. "It just makes sense. With Lorenzo, he's a mature player (32 years old) who has been through this. He knows what the market is going to be and it's an easy decision for him. It's in Nick's interest to wait this out a little bit. He's gone this far. See what the interest is."

Lewis is impressed at the number of things the 270-pound Luchey can do as a move tight end or fullback. He knows the one game in which he carried the ball last season, Luchey carried the ball 12 times for 59 yards and two touchdowns in the 20-13 win over the Saints. But Lewis also wants to see him in better shape.

"We can expand his role and get some good things out of him," Lewis said. "He's got to meet us halfway and get himself in condition to handle that role."

There are signs that Cory Hall, who has started 29 games at safety the past two seasons, is also ready to test the market. He recently switched agents and the Bengals are talking about improving their secondary. But he also went with an agent who has made deals with the Bengals in the past in the Denver-based Peter Schaffer.

The Bengals have been more vocal about re-signing defensive end Bernard Whittington after a season he came off making 11 starts for the oft-injured Vaughn Booker at left end. Booker's agent said last week his client doesn't plan to retire and wants to play out the final two years of his contract, but the Bengals also figure to want to get younger there because Booker turns 35 in 10 days.

The Bengals love Whittington's versatility (he can also play tackle) as well as his work ethic and attitude and would like to re-sign him. Although agent David Levine has said Whittington is going to see what's on the market, it also looks like a good fit. Whittington spends much of his time in Indianapolis and Lewis wants to meet with him there during next week's NFL scouting combine.

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