3-29-01, 12:40 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
PALM DESERT, Calif. _ With the Bengals fearing they would lose the ability to match a contract for Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon, Carolina agreed to terms Wednesday night with two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Todd Steussie.
"The Charlotte Observer," reported in Thursday's editions that the Panthers gave Steussie a five- or six-year deal averaging more than $4 million per year.
The Bengals are now gearing up for a run at cornerbacks and defensive linemen in a free-agent market they expect to expand even more.
"We would like to have Steussie," said Bengals President Mike Brown Wednesday afternoon. "But this is far from the end of free agency for us. If you miss one duck, you keep trying to pick off more ducks and the ducks keep coming.
"There are a lot of good players out there and there are going to be even more and we're going to get some good players who will make us a better team," Brown said.
Cincinnati now figures to try and sign two to three quality players who could start at cornerback and defensive line and be the third wide receiver. The club continues to insist they are out there at a buyer's price because so many teams are up against the cap.
The Bengals are looking at three cornerbacks who have already visited in Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber, San Diego's DeRon Jenkins and Chicago's Walt Harris, as well as former Pro Bowler Eric Davis of Carolina.
The Panthers, with just a little more than $1 million under the salary cap, were a late entry into the Steussie derby Tuesday in joining the Bengals and Broncos. When Carolina started jacking the price Wednesday morning, Brown opted to keep room under the salary cap to match a potential offer on Dillon, as well as leave room to pick up a couple of more starters.
David Dunn, Steussie's agent who also happens to be Dillon's rep, spent the week here at the NFL annual meeting talking to the three clubs. With Dunn also trying to solve the Mark Brunell crisis in Jacksonville, little was done about Dillon and the Bengals.
Dunn said the Panthers came hard and fast at Steussie with recruiting phone calls from the owner, the owner's son, the head coach, the offensive line coach and a quarterback.
"The Bengals were aggressive and made a good offer," Dunn said. "Todd enjoyed his meeting with Mike Brown and that had a big impact on him being interested, and he talked a lot with (line coach) Paul Alexander, but Carolina really came in."
Brown says the Bengals also went hard, but if, "we did the deal at those numbers, we would have exposed ourselves on Corey," said Brown,
who wouldn't divulge figures. "It would have been tight and we couldn't have done any more deals."
The Bengals have the most money under the NFL's salary cap, with about $10 million according to national sources, and the Panthers figure to have a cap-friendly number for this season for Steussie.
But Brown continues to balk at tying up the club's salary cap in future years with so many of the club's top players (Dillon, Takeo Spikes, Brian Simmons, Steve Foley) either free agents now or after next year.
It appears another factor dictated the Bengals back off Steussie, 30, is that if they're going to give a left tackle a mega deal, they figured they might as well give big money to a much younger player. They figure to get that player with the fourth pick in next month's draft in either Leonard Davis of Texas or Kenyatta Walker of Florida.
"We were in this thing on Steussie until today," Brown said. "We just aren't going to make that type of deal and put our future cap at risk and you also have to look at the chance we have at filling that need with the first pick."