Bengals prepare offers

3-4-01 BY GEOFF HOBSON

After sifting through the first deals of NFL free agency and their own discussions with potential pickups, the Bengals head into Monday prepared to make offers.

The club could make a proposal to Pro Bowl quarterback Elvis Grbac as soon as Monday after director of business development Troy Blackburn spent four hours Sunday with agent Jim Steiner at Paul Brown Stadium.

They will also probably make a run at former Bills defensive tackle Ted Washington during his visit Monday to the facility after a weekend they lost two on their wish list when Seattle signed defensive tackle Jon Randle and San Diego signed defensive end Marcellus Wiley.

Blackburn and Steiner apparently gingerly stepped around specific numbers. With the Bengals holding the most room under the NFL salary cap and Grbac trying to figure out his options beyond the Bengals and Ravens, neither side wanted to tip too much, although Steiner said he was ready to make a deal if the Bengals wanted.

Word is the Ravens offered twin four-year deals in the $20 million range to Grbac and Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson and the Ravens are apparently balking at the $6 million per year counter. But Steiner reportedly talked with the Ravens before and after his trip to Cincinnati. Word is the Ravens offered twin four-year deals in the $20 million range to Grbac and Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson.

Blackburn indicated the time for specifics is at hand. Steiner had no comment.

"What we're trying to do is understand the market and where we can put our dollars and what players we can get," Blackburn said. "We're trying to understand their situation, too. We're trying to get as much information as we can. It's too early to tell what a responsible offer would be.

"You've got one pie," Blackburn said. "You can divide it two ways, four ways, six ways. We're trying to gauge what fits the club best in this market."

Here's the quarterback quandary:

Drop big money on Grbac, a man coming off a season no Bengals quarterback has ever had with 4,000 yards passing in Kansas City.

It's a deal that would rock the league and send a message. But it would also prevent the Bengals from grabbing four to six solid players in free agency and signal the beginning of the end of franchise quarterback Akili Smith's run in Cincinnati.

Or, they could sign a proven point producer in Gus Frerotte to a mid-level deal that allows them to send a message another way. They could still sign two top defensive linemen ( Washington and Kenny Holmes?) as well as a top offensive lineman (they have contacted a potential left tackle in the Packers' Ross Verba). A Frerotte deal would also give Smith a chance to revive his career in a training camp competition.

The Bengals also have interest in Johnson, Jon Kitna and Trent Dilfer. But Frerotte, who is visiting Miami Monday, and Grbac got their first look at Cincinnati in visits this past weekend.

Grbac, who threw twice as many touchdowns (28) as interceptions, was suitably impressed with the facilities. But the fact that Elvis left the building knowing it would take just 30 minutes to fly to his hometown of Cleveland was a bigger selling point for the St. Joseph's High School product. Grbac also said he felt the Bengals were sick of their poor reputation around the league.

"It would be a great fit for me because Cleveland is so close and I've got a lot of friends who I grew up with living in Cincinnati now," Grbac said.

Then there's Frerotte, 29,

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who gave the go-ahead to his agent to do a deal with the Bengals after he had a fruitful meeting with offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson during Saturday's visit.

"All the right buttons were pushed in Cincinnati," said Ralph Cindrich. "He liked what the organization was about."

Grbac, who turns 31 in training camp, had heard all the stories about Cincinnati. Particularly the one about former wide receiver Carl Pickens ripping his coach.

But on Sunday, Grbac heard a lot of talk about new things.

"More than anything I came away feeling they want a sense of change, that they want to change things around . The reputation around the league, the Carl Pickens thing, I think that's what sticks in people's minds and I think the organization is tired of it.

"I think they want to change," Grbac said. "They want an opportunity they had a couple of years ago of going to the playoffs and the Super Bowl. What they've done with the facility and with the younger players they have, they have an opportunity to do something special over the next five, six years."

Grbac spent Saturday with the Super Bowl Ravens in Baltimore and while Brian Billick can offer a ring, the Bengals can offer Interstate 71.

"To have my family so close and for them to have an opportunity to see me play in a stadium like this, that's pretty nice," Grbac said. "I've got three kids and it's tough to hop all over and ship them here and there. This would be a nice place."

Family means something to Grbac. His wife Lori accompanied him on the trip and they were met at the airport by Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson and his wife Cristy. He also met with Bengals President Mike Brown and they shared their Cleveland roots.

"I found him to be a solid, impressive guy who didn't waste words," Brown said.

Grbac even fell into calling the Bengals "We," in discussing the skill players. As in: "Peter Warrick can be a great player. Corey Dillon is a great player. Darnay Scott can be a great player. If we draft another receiver and they all develop together, imagine what would happen in two or three years."

When it comes to other positions, the Bengals sense some urgency. They revised their board after Wiley signed a six-year, $40 million deal ($9 million to sign) in San Diego Sunday one day after Randle went for a five-year, $25 million gig in Seattle.

"What we're doing (with the quarterbacks) won't preclude us from getting a top defensive guy," Blackburn said. "It just comes down to how much bang do you want to get for your buck."

Wiley comes from Los Angeles and has the Bills' connection with new Chargers General Manager John Butler.

"When the Bengals called, we were skeptical that they would throw that kind of money at him," said agent Brad Blank.

Washington is also being pursued by Cleveland and Chicago.

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