2-5-2001 BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals are preparing to match the mega contract Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon is expected to secure once NFL free agency starts March 2.
It's a big enough number that the Dillon reserve could have possible ramifications on signing other potential free-agent starters on offense such as center Rich Braham and left guard Matt O'Dwyer, as well as free-agents on other teams.
Bengals President Mike Brown feels he's in a solid enough situation under the NFL salary cap that Dillon's big-ticket return won't hurt the club at other spots. But he also knows he has to leave some room.
"Could there be a number we wouldn't match (for Dillon)?" Brown asked Monday. "Yes, but it's highly unlikely. We're in good position under the cap. If somebody signs Corey, I would think they would be signing him for us."
Brown reiterated Monday the club plans to make Dillon a transition free agent and match an offer sheet for Dillon, a 1,000-yard rusher in all four of his Bengals' seasons and their only Pro Bowler.
With the club's last proposal rejected by Dillon back in December, Brown said the ball is now in the court of Dillon's new agents to start a clean slate of negotiations. That wouldn't involve the eight-year, $60 million offer that Dillon's former agents say the club framed but that Dillon says he wasn't aware of.
Which means all signs continue to point to Dillon going on the market and the Bengals making him a transition free agent so they can retain the right to match.
"It will diminish how much we have in our cap, but we feel we have to protect ourselves in Corey's situation," said Brown of keeping a reserve for Dillon. "He's certainly a big part of our team."
The Bengals wrapped up a potential free-agent lineman in left tackle John Jackson last month. But negotiations for Braham and O'Dwyer, offseason workout partners who are enthusiastic about returning, have gone nowhere since the club approached them about extending their contracts back in December.
At least O'Dwyer has kept his humor during the last three tough months. His rehab from a broken ankle that cost him the last five games of the season is smooth and he's already back lifting weights.
When asked about Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa's declaration before the Super Bowl that O'Dwyer is the dirtiest player he ever faced, O'Dwyer said, "I'm honored he would think of me when he's getting ready for the biggest game of his life."
But there are serious issues.
Braham, who made $1.5 million per year, and O'Dwyer, who made about $1.3 million per year, probably figure to be looking to go to the next level (or at least the next million). The Bengals are considering age, durability and the value of the position compared to other needs.
But Brown and offensive line coach Paul Alexander clearly want them back to a line that finished third in the NFL running the ball.
"We aren't looking to unbalance our cap," Brown said. "There are a number of centers and guards available as unrestricted free agents and they are on the list. But we like them and they played well for us and we hope to get them back."
Braham, 30, a seven-year Bengal, missed seven games early last season because of chronic knee bursitis that required two surgeries. But he once started 44 straight games and has had a strenuous offseason that has included
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running in a harness.
"This is my home now and I'd like to finish my career here," said Braham, a West Virginia product. "I would say there is a pretty good gap there. If it's meant to be, then I'll be playing elsewhere."
O'Dwyer, 28, who just completed a two-year deal, would also like to stay. He's now comfortable with the Bengals' angle blocking and Alexander's techniques, and feels he has established himself. The 15-yard penalties of anger that enraged Bill Parcells in New York have been rare here.
"I'm a pretty solid inside player. For the most part, I've got to be one of the strongest guards in the league," O'Dwyer said. "I've adjusted to the system and what they wanted me to do. It was also a big move going from the right side to the left side and I feel comfortable there now."
Braham knows who the top priority is.
"I think the only guy who is going to unbalance the cap is Corey and that's fine," Braham said. "I don't think I'm going to tip the cap. I just want fair-market value."
Two years ago, O'Dwyer thought he knew what the market value was when he turned down about $8 million for four years from Parcells to stay with the Jets and go into free agency.
"After the first few guys signed, the market went south," O'Dwyer said. "It's two years later. It's another day. I'm a better player than I was two years ago. We'll work it out. We'll talk with the Bengals. I hope something gets done."
Before the 1997 season, the Bengals matched New England's offer on Braham, then a restricted free agent.
"I've never been through this, so I'm not sure what to expect," Braham said. "Matt's been through it and we've talked about it, but I guess you really don't know until you've been there. The bottom line is, I like to play football and I'd like to do it here. I like my coach and I just don't think we're that far from turning it around."