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Bengals ready visits

3-1-02, 2:00 a.m.


INDIANAPOLIS _The Bengals have made it clear they are going after players on the first day of free agency. What isn't so clear is which positions and how many players after Friday's dust settles in the next week or so.

Most NFL observers expect the Bengals to make an early run at Seattle quarterback Trent Dilfer, emerging as the marquee player of this free-agent class. Troy Blackburn, the club's director of business development who is in charge of negotiating with the quarterbacks, heads into the process cautiously for a team that has less than $5 million to spend in free agency.

Blackburn wouldn't specify which quarterbacks he'll open communications with Friday, yet he indicated the club could handle signing about three free agents.

"It could be a quarterback and a cornerback," said Blackburn here at the NFL scouting combine. "Or there may not even be a quarterback. It could be a cornerback, defensive end and tight end. Or it could be just a tight end and defensive end. It depends on how the negotiations go. There's nothing set in stone."

What is set in stone is that the Bengals want to host some free agents next week after the combine ends. Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of pro personnel, said he plans to get in touch with the agents for Dolphins defensive end Kenny Mixon, Redskins tight end Stephen Alexander, and former Giants safety Sam Garnes. And, word is Bears cornerback Walt Harris would consider doing what he didn't do last year and sign with the Bengals.

Mike Sullivan, Dilfer's agent, said Friday morning his client is intrigued with Cincinnati and considers the club an option because he would be surrounded by a top 10 defense, a Pro Bowl running back, and a stable of young, explosive receivers.

Yet after a 19-1 record in his last 20 starts that has included everything (including a Super Bowl ring) but a ringing endorsement from his head coach, Dilfer (4-0 with the Seahawks this past season) is looking for an embrace as well as a new contract.

"He's had his role for the last two years and done it well," Sullivan said. "But now Trent would like for a team to step up and say that he's their guy."

Garnes is a local product the Bengals pondered drafting when he came out of the University of Cincinnati several years ago, where Lippincott always liked

his ability to make plays.

"Especially in run support," Lippincott said. "He's an aggressive guy and a good hitter. A very productive player."

The Bengals have continually said they want to upgrade their quarterback play after a season Jon Kitna threw two touchdown passes and 13 interceptions in a seven-game losing streak.

Fans have clamored for a Drew Bledsoe trade and several people in the league here at the combine flat out give Bledsoe the edge over any free-agent quarterback in pure talent and accuracy. But no one in the NFL has done what Dilfer has done in the past 20 games with three teams (not to mention just 16 interceptions), which probably gives him the edge over former Jaguars linebacker Kevin Hardy on the free-agent board.

Dilfer has not only won 19 of those starts (11 of them in the Ravens' Super Bowl run), but he has done it with a deadly 1-2 punch of big-play passes and accuracy. His passing rating of 85.8 in the past 20 games dwarfs Bledsoe's 76.1. Dilfer's average throw for his 26 touchdown passes is 31.2 yards compared to the 14.2 yards Bledsoe averaged on his 20 touchdown passes in his last 20 games.

Plus, Dilfer had 10 TDs of at least 40 yards and 15 of at least 20, compared to Bledsoe's two and three, respectively.

Could Dilfer bring that big-play capability to Cincinnati that has been missing since Jeff Blake left after the 1999 season? Akili Smith's career yards per attempt is 4.89 and Kitna had 5.54 last year. In his last 20 games, Dilfer is at 7.5.

The Bengals have to decide if 20 games is a trend or if it is just 20 games out of a career.

"I just don't see why the Bengals would go for a Dilfer, Bledsoe, or (Elvis) Grbac with a lot of money after giving Kitna money last year," said one NFC scout here. "There's just not that much difference. At some point, you have to stick with a guy."

But one AFC offensive coordinator could see the Dilfer thinking.

"He's a big guy, he's accurate, he gets the ball down field and he's won," the coordinator said. "You can't take that away from the guy. He's won."

Sullivan said his client is interested in sitting down with teams during the process, which means he probably won't take visits until after this weekend's combine.

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