3-13-01 BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals continued to hammer away methodically at free agency Monday. With the market short of impact players, they opted for reliability and signed their fourth player in 11 days who can project into the 2001 starting lineup.
After signing a two-year deal that figures to cost the Bengals about $1 million under this year's salary cap, center Rich Braham joined left guard Matt O'Dwyer as offensive linemen who re-upped in the face of a tight market.
"Where are the game-breakers out there?" asked Bengals President Mike Brown Monday. "I'm not sure there are any. On the other hand, we felt we've made good, solid signings. Richie and O'Dwyer were two guys on the market or about to go on the market and we were able to get them back. We like Richie as a guy, he's played well when healthy, and he knows the system."
The one gamebreaker on the board, Bengals Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon, could have taken a step closer to staying in Cincinnati Monday when the Browns signed Bears running back Curtis Enis to a curious one-year deal.
The name of a potential solid pickup who could change the way the Bengals line up on defense surfaced Monday when Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau said he would call to check on the services of former Steelers Pro Bowl linebacker Levon Kirkland.
That came on a day the Bengals saw three free-agent visitors from last week sign elsewhere when defensive end Kenny Holmes went to the Giants, center Jeff Mitchell to the Panthers, and right tackle Leon Searcy to Baltimore.
But with the Bengals making an offer to Packers left tackle Ross Verba Monday and Willie Anderson set at right tackle, Searcy was never a fit. Plus, even though Mitchell was the highest-rated center on the board, the Bengals thought Braham's knee is in better shape after Mitchell's post-season procedure.
After Holmes signed for five years at $20 million, some pockets of the Bengals thought he was a good buy at that price and fit the club's salary structure.
But then, there is Holmes' up-and-down-play and the fact the bulk of his 23.5 career sacks came after the Titans put Jevon Kearse at the opposite end.
"He's a good fit for the Giants. He may be a better fit for them instead of us," Brown said. "They've got a big, strong guy over there on the other side in (Michael) Strahan. We know we need help at that spot and there are different ways to go about that. (Holmes) was one solution, but not the whole solution."
The Bengals are still talking to defensive linemen, including Simeon Rice, Dana Stubblefield and Cortez Kennedy.
But one of those solutions could be Kirkland and the fact the Bengals think they have a pretty quick and athletic linebacker who is bigger than the pass rushers available on the market in 270-pound left outside linebacker Steve Foley. LeBeau wants to see if Kirkland is interested in reuniting the Pittsburgh glory days in the middle of the Cincinnati defense.
Kirkland, cut by the Steelers last week, is visiting Seattle Monday and Tuesday. But he had his best days when LeBeau was the Steelers' defensive coordinator in the mid-1990s and Kirkland was an inside backer in a unit that went to the Super Bowl and was No. 1 in the NFL.
Kirkland could become the middle linebacker, Brian Simmons could move from the middle to left outside linebacker, and Foley could move from left outside linebacker to defensive end, the position he played when he led the nation in sacks during college.
"The versatility of our linebackers make us very flexible there," LeBeau said. "They can do a lot of different things and play a lot of different spots. Simmons can play on the outside and Foley played end in college. Certainly we can do enough things there that it's worth giving Levon a call to see if he's interested."
Verba and the Bengals are interested in each other. They seek a left tackle. Verba seeks to play left tackle after the Packers switched him to left guard last season to shore up their middle against such NFC Central tackles as Warren Sapp and John Randle.
But like Verba says, "I couldn't tell you who's in the NFC or the AFC. I don't know who's in our division."
What he does know after visiting Paul Brown Stadium Monday
is that Arizona wants to play him at left guard, Cleveland wants him at right tackle and Cincinnati and Carolina want him at left tackle.
"I'm serious about all of them," said Verba, who says the decision won't come down to the position. "It's going to come down to a combination of everything and just what my heart tells me."
But Verba's head is no doubt looking at the Jeff Hartings' deal, in which the Lions guard got nearly $6 million up front. Still, Verba has ties here with right guard Mike Goff, one of his closest friends at the University of Iowa, and tight ends coach Frank Verducci, his college offensive line coach.
It's just like the old days. Verducci asked Verba to move from tight end to left tackle back then and he can still remember the 245-pound red-shirt freshman holding his own against Michigan at left tackle.
"That was something to see, this kid playing like that in the big house," Verducci said. "He was a high school All-American tight end and he moved for the good of the team and a big reason he became an All-American and a No. 1 pick is because he's such a competitor."
At 6-4, 308 pounds, Verba uses a strong upper body and tenacious confidence. Asked about going against the great AFC Central pass rushers (McCrary, Brackens, Gildon), Verba said, "I've gone against the best. I am the best. They have to go against me."
Verba admitted it's tough to be impressed by new facilities because nearly everyone has them. But he was impressed with the leather recliner in offensive line coach Paul Alexander's office, which is where the best lineman in a victory gets to spend the week.
Maybe it will help. Verba said his first two considerations are the head coach and offensive line coach. Count Verba as another free agent taken by LeBeau. In his first season as head coach, LeBeau has been as valuable a recruiting tool as the stadium.
Braham couldn't help notice Verba visiting the building Monday. They met as Braham went into sign his contract, an act that looked next to impossible a week ago.
"My agent and I figured the Bengals were having twice as many players into visit than the rest of the league," Braham said. "I guess that happens when you've got the most money to spend. Yeah, we've got everyone back (on the offensive line), but it looks like they're trying to add."
Braham had been looking for a raise from his $1.5 million average, but like O'Dwyer he found the going hard on the market and the Bengals even tougher. He probably had to take much less, but he wasn't bitter.
But he did make a vow Monday. He said he doesn't plan to miss any snaps in the next two years.
Braham is coming off a tough season with knee problems that plagued him at the beginning of the year. But after having his bursa sack removed from his knee, he recovered to start the last seven games. The Bengals rushed for nearly 130 yards per game in that stretch, including a combined 501 in back-to-back games against the Steelers and Cardinals.
But, "they held that over my head some. They were asking about my knees and all that and that's part of negotiations I guess. But I feel good. I'm in good shape now. If it had worked the first time, I doubt I would have missed any games. Maybe one."
Braham's original surgery on the knee, which was early in training camp, didn't take and it had to be performed again the third week of the season.
But the affable, tough Braham, who has started 69 games as a Bengal, is ready again.
"It was my choice. I signed. I'm happy. That's all that counts," Braham said. "I've got a house here. I live here and I like Cincinnati. Now it's a matter of learning the new offense."
But Alexander already passed the word on the NFL's second-ranked rushing attack.
"I guess the running game is staying pretty much the same," Braham said, "but there are a few wrinkles in the passing game."