Bengals (pass) rush to deal

Posted: 9:10 p.m.

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Geathers

The Bengals showed their hand early in free agency Wednesday when they made their third-youngest regular their highest-paid player on defense with a deal that secures sack leader Robert Geathers for the next six seasons.

Head coach Marvin Lewis said last week the Bengals aim to keep their own and instead of holding back money for unrestricted free agents that come loose in March they struck a deal just 10 days after the season for Geathers after he became the club's first double-digit sacker in 14 years with 10.5 in his third season.

The contract, which can grow from $32.5 to $33.7 million with incentives and gives him more in the first year than the deal for Colts sack ace Robert Mathis at $14 million, takes Geathers out of restricted free agency. It anchors a 23-year-old the club feels can consistently give it a productive pass rusher, always one of the most expensive positions in unfettered free agency.

Which means it's a major free-agent signing, only it is a year early and not from another team.

It also delighted one of the team leaders, Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson, who believes Geathers is the kind of guy the Bengals need in their locker room to become a regular team-first playoff participant.

"Here's a guy you never know he's around until he goes out and gets two sacks on Sunday," Anderson said. "A great character guy. It's a great thing to get not only those young fresh legs, but a guy with a veteran mind. I'm happy for Robert because he's a solid guy who has worked for it."

It's believed that Geathers' hit under the '07 salary cap is about $5 million, which probably leaves the Bengals enough for another major signing and all indications are they'll make a run to give it to Justin Smith, Geathers' tag-team partner on the edge on passing downs with 7.5 sacks this season scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency with 41.5 career sacks in six seasons.

Geathers, for one, would like to see Smith stick around and he thinks the current defense can get better by keeping many of them together even though a unit that finished 30th in total NFL defense is getting scalded daily.

"It'd be great if Justin came back because we've got a great competition going," Geathers said. "I think we've got what it takes. It really helps as many guys stay together as possible. What we need is to play with intensity every week. When we do, we stop people. I think we've got talent, we just have to have the mindset every game. It's like Willie says; 'Man up.' "

Geathers, back to his rookie weight of about 265 pounds, settled in at left end this season on passing situations after Lewis admitted beefing him up to 280 pounds and making him the starting right end his sophomore season wasn't a great coaching move.

But there are some who that think a slimmed-down Geathers that doesn't move inside to tackle on passing downs could replace Smith at right end, although all indications are the Bengals are going to push to get a deal with Smith.

"I feel more comfortable on the left side, but I can play both," Geathers said.

Bill Johnson of the Atlanta-based Profiles Sports Management Inc., said negotiations with Bengals chief of business development Troy Blackburn heated up last month and kept percolating even though the salary cap year ended.

"If they got the deal done before the end of the season, it obviously would have helped them with some pro ration issues under the cap," Johnson said. "But what really impressed us is that they told us even if they couldn't get it done by then, they still wanted to do it, that they liked Robert, they thought he was a fine player, a fine person, and wanted to let him know going into the offseason they felt strongly about him.

"The thing that we really appreciated is that Troy never took the opportunity to run down our player. It was always, 'We like him, we like his character, there's nothing we don't like.' "

There isn't much about the deal to dislike for either side.

For the Bengals, they have to consider it economically sound. Who knows how much Geathers would be worth with another 10-sack season and a defensive end franchise tag in '08 in excess of $10 million?

For Geathers, it's a lifetime deal with $14 million this year in bonuses and salary for a guy who is not yet 24 and has 17 career sacks. The only two regulars younger than Geathers, born Aug. 11, 1983, are two rookies from last season, defensive tackle Domata Peko (Nov. 27, 1984) and cornerback Johnathan Joseph, born April 16, 1984.

"I really feel like I'm blessed," said Geathers a few hours after the signing. "I'm comfortable there. I really like what Coach Lewis has got going on. This year was tough, but the sky's the limit."

Potential Free Agents:

Starters: TE Reggie Kelly, CB Tory James, DE Justin Smith, LG Eric Steinbach

Key special-teamers: LB Marcus Wilkins, S Kevin Kaesviharn, TE Tony Stewart, RB Kenny Watson

Backups: QB Doug Johnson, QB Anthony Wright, OL Scott Kooistra

Injured: CB Rashad Bauman, S Anthony Mitchell, WR Kelley Washington

Potential Restricted Free Agents: Linebackers Landon Johnson and Caleb Miller, right tackle Stacy Andrews, defensive tackle Shaun Smith and cornerback Greg Brooks.

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