3-11-04, 4 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
With Wednesday's release of popular 11-year cornerback Jeff Burris, the Bengals have picked up between $4-5 million under this year's salary cap in the week-long vetting of big-money veterans and now look poised to:
Get into the driver's seat in the pursuit of Eagles five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Troy Vincent and try to finish off a deal to retain safety Rogers Beckett. Vincent indicated in Kansas City Wednesday that he didn't get an offer after his visit with the Chiefs. Burris' release adds another corner to a tight market, where former Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins got a three-year deal in Carolina Wednesday.
There is the growing possibility Burris' replacement in the starting lineup at left corner is going to be one of Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier's two Pro Bowl cornerbacks from the 2002 season in Vincent and Bobby Taylor.
Taylor's agent, Jason Medlock, said Wednesday that he's had encouraging negotiations with the Bengals but that his client won't make any kind of a decision until he visits Paul Brown Stadium Sunday night.
Try to make their biggest move of free agency without having to re-structure quarterback Jon Kitna's contract. A puzzled Kitna questioned Wednesday why the team hasn't responded yet to his agent's proposal for a contract extension that was submitted Friday.
"They were the ones who asked for us to give them an offer and you would think they would at least get back to us one way or another after five days," Kitna said. "That's a tough thing to figure out. Again, we're not looking for a trade. The first priority is to get an extension, so you would think they would have got back to us by now."
Refuse to give away running back Corey Dillon. The Bengals have released Burris, Hawkins, and defensive tackle Oliver Gibson to pick up room, so jettisoning Dillon to save about $1.5 million this year isn't a must. Head coach Marvin Lewis pretty much confirmed last month the club has shopped him, and indications from across the league are since the trading period opened last week is that Cincinnati has approached teams that look, or did look to be in need of a running back. Don't look for the Bengals to take anything less than a first-day pick for him, or a comparable player.
Burris, who turns 32 in June, knew it was coming. But despite two major concussions last season, he still wants to keep playing, and his agent said Wednesday night he
received four phone calls from other teams since Burris was released early in the afternoon.
"It wasn't really a surprise when they told me, but I just saw it on ESPN and it's just now sinking in," Burris said. "I can understand whey they did it. . .I think it's a health thing more than anything else. I think they're looking for a guy who can play 16 games, and not somebody who might give them six or eight, or whatever. But I believe I'm healthy now."
Before Burris signed a three-year deal in the $5 million range with the Bengals in 2002, he had missed one game in the last four years. But last year he missed three and started only six since a collision in Buffalo Oct. 5. He returned from that, but the second concussion on Nov.2 covering a kickoff in Arizona shelved him until the final four games. In 2002, his playing time was limited in three games because of migraine headaches.
"My wife and I have sat down and talked about it, and she's behind me in every venture I undertake," Burris said. "I'm not ready yet to let her do the working. When she gets out, maybe, but I still want to play and know I can play."
Burris has a special place in Bengals' lore. He secured Lewis' first victory as coach last Sept. 28 when he picked off Browns quarterback Tim Couch in the last minute of the 21-14 victory in Cleveland. Earlier in the fourth quarter, he broke up Couch's pass to wide receiver Kevin Johnson on fourth-and-four at the Cincinnati 28.
It all came less than 48 hours after he injured his neck in a serious one-car accident and very nearly decided not to play.
"I have no qualms about the way I was treated," Burris said. "Marvin and (Bengals President) Mike Brown made sure I was healthy when I played. I certainly like what Marvin is doing there and Mike and everybody seems ready to do whatever it takes to win. I don't want to play in the AFC North because I wouldn't want to have to play the Bengals. I really like the players and coaches that are there and I know what it's taken to turn it around."
And they like him, as evidenced by the number of phone calls he received when Wednesday's news spread. Much of the time, Burris led the Bengals' Bible study, and he was also the club's representative to the NFL Players Association.
"He was a great guy to have around. Jeff is a real positive influence," Kitna said. "It just shows you how you can't get close to anyone in this league because nothing is forever. Our locker room has (other) guys that can lead. It's not void of leaders like I thought it was a couple of years ago."
The Bengals save about $1.3 million on the move with Burris and he wouldn't rule out returning at a lower salary. But with their pursuit of Vincent and Taylor, that doesn't look to be an option. Burris, who led the team with two interceptions, was fourth with six passes defensed despite the time missed, thinks he still has a few years left. He said his preference is to retire as a Bengal, but he would also like to retire in Buffalo since he began his career there in 1994 as a first-round pick.
The move indicates just how much the Bengals are expecting out of fourth-round pick Dennis Weathersby this season after he played sparingly in just four games his rookie season. He's got Burris' support, but the vet wasn't kidding all that much when he said, "He needs me back in Cincinnati to help him.
"That's my man," Burris said. "He's very talented. He's got a good future ahead of him. No matter where I am this year, he can call me any time, day or night, and I'll help him with whatever he needs."
The Bengals hope to get another veteran to help Weathersby, but they want to make sure the price is right. It certainly helps them that the market has tightened up in the last couple of days. So tight that according to one list on ESPN.com, the Bengals are in the hunt for the first (Vincent) and fourth (Taylor) best players still left after last week's flurry.
Vincent is actually 364 days older than Burris, but he's got 23 more career interceptions. Like Burris, Taylor, 30, went to Notre Dame, and he's been with the Eagles ever since they drafted him out of Notre Dame in the second round in 1995. Earlier this week Taylor visited Seattle, where he also has a Philly connection with defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes. But the Bengals look to have more financial flexibility than the Seahawks at the moment.
Kitna, scheduled to make $3.3 million this year despite backing up, thinks a move would be coming if they can't reach an agreement on an extension. But he's not sure.
"That's why it's in God's hands. You don't know,' Kitna said. "As a player, you want to play. You just want to play no matter what. My agent is the guy that is looking out for the big picture for me."