Bengals prepare for rookies

7-28-04, 4:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

With the Bengals set to report to training camp Friday by 3 p.m., they began their expected spate of rookie signings Wednesday when fifth-rounder Maurice Mann became the second of the club's 11 draft picks to join the fold. On Thursday afternoon, the agent for second-rounder Madieu Williams said a deal was close enough that he believes his client is going to be at training camp on time Friday.

There are some hangups (such as with fourth-rounder Stacy Andrews) and a tough one (with first-rounder Chris Perry), but almost all are expected for Saturday morning's first practice at Georgetown College.

Also Wednesday, one of the men who helped make quarterback Tim Couch a Kentucky icon joined the Bengals just in time for the Bluegrass camp when former Cowboys tight end James Whalen agreed to a contract.

Agent Alan Herman confirmed the one-year deal, but the Bengals won't announce it until Whalen signs Thursday. The move should add some spice to a tight end derby that had looked to be locked with Reggie Kelly, Tony Stewart, and Matt Schobel.

Whalen, who left the University of Kentucky in 1999 as the NCAA's single-season leader for catches, yards, and touchdowns for a tight end, fits the profile of a pass-catcher who can get the ball down field and he also brings an excellent reputation to special teams.

But all of Whalen's 17 career NFL catches for 152 yards came in 2002. He played in just three games as a rookie after the Cowboys picked him up when Tampa Bay cut him out of 2000 training camp, missed the next season with a strained Achilles tendon, and didn't have a catch in seven games last year in a season he was deactivated five times with injury.

But he must have impressed a couple of people during that '02 season because his position coach at the time, Greg Seamon, and his offensive coordinator, Bruce Coslet, are now in the Bengals personnel department. He also led NFL Europe with 66 catches in 2001.

The Bengals have an excellent third-down pass-catcher in Schobel, who is coming off a 24-catch season with the second best yards per catch average on the club at 13.8. He has had problems at times staying on the field with nagging hamstring problems.

The 6-2, 244-pound Whalen caught 23 balls for 239 yards and three touchdowns from Couch in a junior season he made the transition from wide receiver to tight end after transferring from Shasta Junior College in California and walking on as a sophomore. Then after Couch left, he had a 90-catch season and was drafted in the fifth round by Tampa Bay.

"It's a perfect fit. When this kid gets an opportunity to play, all he does is catch the ball," Herman said. "People around there know him. They saw what he can do at Kentucky. Plus, he has people there that saw him play in the league and the special teams coach is excited about him."

Since the drafting of Mann out of Nevada, the last two wide receiver spots have figured to be wide open, particularly with the re-emergence of T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the spring camps. Pro Bowler Chad Johnson, Peter Warrick, Kelley Washington, and special teams ace Kevin Walter look to have the early edge in what appears to be a race for six spots. Mann, who averaged 15.6 yards per catch during two seasons at Nevada, is in there with Houshmandzadeh and free-agent pickup Patrick Johnson. Mann has the speed and big-play ability (he averaged 17 yards per catch last year when he caught 35 for 594 yards in eight games), and the Bengals are hoping he'll be me more comfortable in the system at camp.

Mann joins in the fold sixth-rounder Greg Brooks, the cornerback from Southern Mississippi, on a three-year deal that agent Michael Hoffman didn't divulge but called "fair-market value."

With 12 teams reporting to camp ahead of the Bengals, they figure to be in line now to complete the bulk of their signings in the next 24 hours. Denver, whose rookies reported Tuesday, did seven deals in a space of a day. The Bengals don't appear to be trying to sign their players to a certain number of years and appear to be flexible on structure. But it still comes down to a finite number of dollars (in this case $4.6 million) in the rookie pool.

Perry's agent, Eugene Parker, is a tough negotiator known to take things until the very end and the time frame is complicated because he represents two unsigned guys pretty much in the same spot in the first round in Green Bay's Ahmad Carroll at No. 25 and Perry at No. 26. Given the contracts in that part of the round, it figures to end up being some sort of a five-year deal but they have to hash out in what form Perry gets about a $4 million bonus.

Some of it isn't about the money. Rich Moran, Andrews' agent, is primarily concerned about the "split," structure in the contract for the first two years.

That means Andrews would get paid less if he gets hurt, a detail that is in most lower-round deals. Moran argues that his fellow fourth-rounders on the team, Matthias Askew and Robert Geathers, are being offered splits after just one year. But Askew (No. 114) and Geathers (No. 117) also went higher than Andrews (No. 123).

"We think it ought to be more equitable than that," Moran said. "I don't know if it's going to hold us out of camp or not, but we're working on a counter proposal and hopefully that can get addressed."

After playing just about 70 snaps last year at tackle in what is pretty much a new career, Andrews figures to be a prime candidate to play in NFL Europe after this season. Geathers is pretty much slotted in with deals above him and below him in the round, and Askew also has some deals in front of him. The agent for seventh-rounder Casey Bramlet has said he'll be there on time.

The agents for the third-round linebackers still seem confident Caleb Miller and Landon Johnson are going to be there Saturday.

"You're not always going to agree on everything, but I don't see anything extraordinary here," said Kyle Rote Jr., Miller's agent. "I don't see him being late."

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