BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals President Mike Brown looks at the fourth pick in April's NFL Draft and figures his team can choose a player who will start on Opening Day at any of the team's needy positions.
But the club also thinks it can get two to three more starters when free agency opens six weeks before the draft on March 2.
With two months until free agency, the Bengals are mulling one big-bucks free agent or a couple of middle tier players in the Oliver Gibson mold as immediate starters.
"The good news is we have the flexibility to go after the big player or a handful of solid, starting players," said Bengals vice president Katie Blackburn Tuesday of the team's salary cap status.
"We've got room under the cap to be aggressive," Blackburn said. "But if we go beyond signing two or three players, we would need to look at being creative to get more room."
That's because the cap room figures to fill quickly. Published and broadcast reports have put room under the '01 Bengals salary cap anywhere between $15 to $20 million.
But two projections not included in that figure running back Corey Dillon's salary cap number and the club's rookie pool consume about $9-10 million.
Added to those projections is nearly $2 million accounting for the annual rise in minimum salaries, offers to restricted free agents such as linebacker Adrian Ross and cornerback Rodney Heath, as well as the salaries for minicamp and off-season workouts.
Given that the Bengals like to front load long-term deals with a hefty first-year salary, Dillon figures to project for a cap count this year in the $5 million range. Plus, the Bengals have the same fourth pick in the draft that cost them about $4 million last year.
Dillon's cap number could change because if the Bengals match another team's offer to keep him, they would be responding to another team's cap situation.
Another projection is the pursuit of center Rich Braham, left guard Matt O'Dwyer and left tackle John Jackson. They all finished their seasons as starters and free agents.
"We anticipate those players coming back to us," Blackburn said. "If we can't
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re-sign them, we'll have to sign comparable players."
There are some big fish projected to be flapping around in free agency that fit the Bengals' needs. Washington quarterback Brad Johnson, Titans defensive end Kenny Holmes, and Bills wide receiver Eric Moulds lead the field. But they could also be taken out of the mix by getting designated a franchise player free agent.
"We'll fish in all the ponds and see what we come up with," said Blackburn when asked if the Bengals would go after the big fish.
"Do you get two or three starters or put all the money in one player?" Blackburn asked. "It's something you have to think about and you won't know until free agency starts because of who'll be available."
During 1999 free agency, the Bengals signed Gibson, a career backup to Pro Bowler Joel Steed in Pittsburgh, for a three-year, $3.6 million bargain. Since then, Gibson has become one of the most productive Bengals in starting all 32 games at defensive tackle and earning a four-year extension last month that figures to pay him about $3 million per year.