Bengals, players in delay game

Posted: 6 a.m.

Bengals executives are back in the office Friday still waiting for direction from the NFL on how to prepare for free agency. All indications are that both Plan A and Plan B involve a measured approach revolving around the top priorities of signing a veteran backup quarterback and extending the contracts of some of their offensive line.

Just how much they'll do beyond that is an open question, just like the state of the league at the moment. As teams furiously began cutting players in order to get under the $94.5 million salary cap, the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed Thursday to a 72-hour delay that pushed the start of free agency to 12:01 a.m. Monday in order to resume negotiations for an extension of the collective bargaining agreement.

The Bengals, one of just 14 teams that began the week under the salary cap, gave no indication that they would deviate from their strategy even as several high-profile names rolled off the chopping block during what one NFL wag christened "Bloody Thursday."

Cincinnati's plan to sign a veteran backup quarterback, focus on extending its offensive line beyond 2006, then wait, seemed as good as any other plan on one of the most chaotic days in NFL history. Don't look for a head-first dive from a club still focused on keeping their own players that they've developed in the draft despite the whirlwind topography of the current NFL.

SAMPLING OF FREE AGENT NFL SAFETIES
Name Team HeightWeightAge/Years Comment
Adam Archuleta Rams 6-0 223 Turned 28 Nov. 27/5 Big hitter is sometimes too aggressive and not great in coverage but still market's top safety
Corey Chavous Vikings 6-1 205 Turned 30 Jan. 15/7 Great locker room presence who can stop run and get everyone lined up
Chris Hope Steelers 5-11 205 Turns 26 Sept. 29/4 More of a free than a strong. He and Archuleta could be too pricey on this market
Dexter Jackson Bucs 6-0 225 Turns 29 July 28/7 Former Super Bowl MVP and ferocious hitter who plays ball as well
Marlon McCree Panthers 5-11 200 Turns 29 March 17/5 University of Kentucky grad displayed all-around skills for NFC champions
Lance Schulters Dolphins 6-2 200 Turns 31 May 27/8 Coming off a so-so year, but had a big-hitting rep in Tennessee

By failing to extend the collective bargaining agreement before the NFL year began Friday at 12:01 a.m., players and owners dove into murky waters. The upcoming season is the last with a salary cap. No money can be pushed into the future because, right now, the only future after 2007 is a work stoppage. The rules are now turned upside down with players unable to become free agents until after their sixth season.

Until now, players became restricted free agents after three years and unrestricted after four. Now it is five and six, respectively. That is, if a CBA isn't reached.

"I've got three three-year players. Now what do I do?" asked Richard Katz, a Cincinnati lawyer who represents 16 NFL players. "Do I sign a one-year deal hoping they settle something and it's back to four years? But what if they don't and he's restricted again next year? If you sign a multi-year deal to get the money now, what if they agree to something and you miss out on a free-agent year? You tell me. Frankly, I don't think a lot of the teams know what to do, either."

But, it was looking into that abyss that probably caused the rush back to the bargaining table Thursday night a day after talks broke off.

The Bengals were one of the few teams not scrambling Thursday because they figure to have about a $4-5 million pad under the $94.5 million cap. While various estimates have put them anywhere between $9-14 million under the cap, those figures don't take into account:

  • A total of $2.848 million in one-year tenders to restricted free agents Kelley Washington, Kevin Walter, Jeremi Johnson and Scott Kooistra . They each figure to be tendered at $712,000. A total of $3.75 million to sign their 2006 draft picks. An estimated $2 million reserved for injured players and incentives.

A few players have popped onto the market in the last 24 hours that could get the Bengals talking abut re-adjusting their strategy, most notably defensive tackle Sam Adams, an elite run stopper with Marvin Lewis ties who expressed interest immediately Wednesday in re-joining Lewis.

But the Bengals have been adamant about signing their own, particularly their line that spawned one of the most memorable offensive seasons in club history. But because left tackle Levi Jones, a fifth-year player, and left guard Eric Steinbach, a fourth-year player, are now restricted after this season, the Bengals could move to the right side and look at Pro Bowl tackle Willie Anderson and guard Bobbie Williams.

"A good player is going to get a good contract. That's what Levi has going for him," said Jones agent Ken Zuckerman. "I'm still optimistic. Why, I don't know. There's no question that this is going to cause irreparable damage on the landscape. But it's not like Levi is a free agent right now. He'll be restricted after next year and that will be a good price."

Of course, by Monday, Jones and Steinbach could be free after '06 again.

"Let's wait and see," Zuckerman said.

Adams's agent, Angelo Wright, is also waiting and seeing. He thinks the market is going to start a little slow, and even though Adams has already been cut, he figures the Bengals and other teams are going to move into action on Adams a day or two into next week.

"They'll want to see how it settles," Wright said. "If there is no agreement, that helps an older player like my guys (Adams and defensive tackle Ted Washington). We're looking for something like a three-year deal anyway, and not anything longer. The younger free agents are in a bit of a bind."

The Bengals have been planning for the market to go either way. It will be interesting to see if they decide to get a little more active if they see some free agents they didn't expect to see if they don't have to sign Steinbach or Jones right away, or if they get a boost in the cap.

The Bengals' biggest need besides a quarterback who may have to start early in the season is a sure tackling safety in the middle of the field. They could also look at defensive tackle, although the rotation of John Thornton, Bryan Robinson and Shaun Smith had a pretty good year against the run. The Bengals don't so much need to replace their talent because it's a fairly solid group, but they wouldn't mind beefing up the middle with some size and girth.

The 340-pound Adams, cut Wednesday by Buffalo, leads the pack. He turns 33 in June and is a proven guy who has played on dominant defenses. Wright has already expressed his interest and expects to talk to the Bengals by Monday.

There are also a smattering of young guys who have emerged as top players (the Rams' Ryan Pickett via Ohio State) and older, bigger players who may not fit Lewis's athletic mold (Green Bay's Grady Jackson) but who have also been in the middle of stingy defenses.

Yet safety is the real need and there are some good ones. It remains to be seen how much the market is going to go for the top guys like the Rams' Adam Archuleta and the Steelers' Chris Hope, and how long they'll stay out there as the Bengals deal with quarterbacks and the offensive line first.

Plus, who knows anything?

If a CBA is reached before Monday, the salary cap is going to supposedly expand to about $102 million. But a lot has to happen in order for that number to become real. First, the owners and players have to agree on the players' percentage of the revenue at a number between 56 and 60 percent. Then, the owners themselves have to agree on a revenue sharing plan because it's believed small to medium-sized market teams like the Bengals won't approve a CBA with the bigger cap unless they have more revenue sharing.

Without the extension, though, some teams have to release some excellent players in order to get space. There's a huge difference between the 2005 cap of $85.5 million and $102 million, and the actual $94.5 million. Making it extremely difficult for teams that are $20-30 million over the cap like a handful such as the Redskins, Titans and Jets, are the new rules if a CBA isn't in place:

Team can only prorate signing bonuses over four years, rather than seven, cutting down significantly on bonuses. Plus, annual salaries can increase by a maximum of only 30 percent per year, another key element for big deals.

"The players' expectations aren't going to be met," Zuckerman said. "If there is no CBA, the bonuses won't be there, and I think there'll be some caution on both sides. We've never been here before."

Katz and Zuckerman predict that the middle-tier free agents are going to sign first, followed by the stars. Usually, it's the other way around. But Zuckerman doesn't see a change in the backup quarterback market.

"Those guys are looking for one- or two-year deals anyway," Zuckerman said. "They're looking to make a splash and then are trying to get back on the market anyway."

Wright, always one of the first to strike in free agency, knows he's looking at a different deal if there is no CBA.

"You have to make sure you protect your player," he said, alluding to the proration and salary increase rules. "There are teams out there that are going to be able to deal with it."

SAMPLING OF FREE AGENT NFL DTs
Name Team HeightWeightAge/Years Comment
Sam Adams Bills 6-4 340 Turns 33 June 13/12 Marvin Lewis disciple who still pushes people around and impacts games
Brentson Buckner Panthers 6-2 310 Turns 35 Sept. 30/12 Former Bengal and Steeler who could be at the end of the line
Rocky Bernard Seahawks 6-3 295 Turns 27 April 18/4 Solid player but maybe not an upgrade when it comes to stopping the run
Lional Dalton Chiefs 6-1 315 Turned 31 Feb. 21/8 Marvin Lewis and the Ravens signed him as a college free agent eight years ago
Ron Edwards Bills 6-3 320 Turns 27 July 12/5 Solid player who could be emerging
La'Roi Glover Cowboys 6-2 285 Turns 32 July 4/10 Quick, relentless guy who can penetrate and keep O-lines occupied
Ma'ake Kemoeatu Ravens 6-5 350 Turned 27 Jan. 10/4 Huge presence that may be too huge
Ryan Pickett Rams 6-2 310 Turns 27 Oct. 8/5 Bengals liked him coming out of Ohio State and he's become one of NFL's best
Grady Jackson Packers 6-2 345 Turned 33 Jan. 21/9 Very big man and lane clogger who doesn't look to fit Marvin mold
Trevor Pryce Broncos 6-5 295 Turns 31 Aug. 3/9 Not ideal run stuffer Bengals may be seeking; More of an end
Kimo von Oelhoffen Steelers 6-4 300 Turned 35 Jan. 30/12 Former Bengal now hated for Palmer hit, but is coming off best season
Gerard Warren Broncos 6-4 325 Turns 28 July 25/6 No. 3 pick in draft just five years ago who is brute vs. the run

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