BY GEOFF HOBSON
With nearly half the NFL teams over the salary cap and free agency less than a month away, the Bengals plan to make "a strong," foray when the market opens March 2.
Bengals president Mike Brown has never seen so many teams so far strapped at this point in the offseason, and he thinks this might be the year his team could take advantage of other clubs grappling with staggering deficits.
"We've tried to do it responsibly and did not try to push cap charges into future years as other teams," Brown said Tuesday. "Now that is coming home to bite other teams. There are about half the teams in the league that are over the cap for the 2001 season and they have to make moves to get under.
"We aren't in that situation," Brown said. "We're going to be a strong competitor in the free-agent market this year because we have room to do things."
Club insiders suggest it's the most aggressive stance Brown has taken on the eve of free agency with even the once forbidden restricted free agents (which usually costs a draft pick) up for discussion.
Since the advent of unfettered free agency in 1994, Brown has long rejected the strategy of most NFL teams that "rob Peter to pay Paul." Which, Brown says, is using the system to dole out big contracts that don't count until later years so the deals can fit under that present season's salary cap.
Now the Bengals apparently hope to take advantage of having more room under the cap than many teams and combining it with the few teams that have flexibility for a finite number of dollars.
"It doesn't mean we will solve all ills," Brown said. "But it means we start this race with less weight on our back than most other teams. And we plan to be a player in free agency to improve our team."
The first move in free agency could come as early as Thursday, the first day the Bengals can designate Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon a transition free agent and retain the right to match an offer sheet for him.
bengals.com can't name possible free-agent candidates until March 2 because of tampering rules. But the need list is the same as the one in the draft: a pass rusher, a run stuffer to team with Oliver Gibson, and
Continued from Homepage
a big, speedy wide receiver to complement Darnay Scott and Peter Warrick. With quarterback Scott Mitchell, center Rich Braham and left guard Matt O'Dwyer unsigned, quarterbacks and interior linemen figure to be on the list.
The Bengals have some baggage in attracting free agents, such as a three-year record of 11-37 and a recent not very player friendly survey released by the NFL Players Association.
But there's also some big plusses on their side when the bidding starts.
It's the first full free-agent season the club is able to sell candidates Paul Brown Stadium's highly-regarded facility. And they would be earmarked to contribute right away in schemes built by new offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and new defensive coordinator Mark Duffner for new head coach Dick LeBeau.
Plus, there's the money. The Bengals have no cap problems like teams such as Jacksonville and Buffalo, where the pitfalls have been well chronicled.
Published reports put Jacksonville about $30 million over the cap and according to "The Buffalo News," new Bills boss Tom Donahoe's first challenge is to make Eric Moulds the highest paid receiver in the NFL (figure about $10 million per year) while trying to pare a payroll that's already about $12 million over the cap.
Bills defensive linemen Ted Washington (counting a cap-killer $7.7 million this year) and Phil Hansen have already balked at re-doing their deals for cap relief. If that's just in one city, what happens by June 1? Or even March 1?
"We have issues with the main one making sure
we have a reserve to keep Corey Dillon," Brown said. "But it pales in significance compared to the problems other teams are facing.
"I don't know if as many teams are going to buy as there have been in the past," Brown said. "That's because they don't have the money and I like to think it's going to be as the result of the consequences they've had to pay. There was a point when teams were paying big contracts without really understanding the system early on."
Brown continues to insist the Bengals won't change their philosophy and push cash into the future.
"We try to make each year stand on its own," Brown said. "We don't plan to pursue contracts at the expense of future years because we fear we'll end up with the problems that several teams have now."
But Brown is adamant that he wants this year to stand out as well as stand alone in free agency.
"We think we've got a chance to help our team," he said.