Bengals stalk defense

4-02-01, 6:05 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

With the NFL Draft less than three weeks away, many NFL teams are taking a hiatus from free agency to see if they can meet their needs with the rookie selections.

But the Bengals are hoping to wrap up some veteran players who are looking for a home before getting closed out after the April 21-22 draft. So the club is delving into the market again for cornerbacks and defensive linemen with the idea of coming away with two to three starters in a buyer's market.

With the club re-working its strategy after left tackle Todd Steussie opted to go to Carolina and national reports saying Cincinnati is $10 million under the salary cap, Bengals President Mike Brown said Monday the money is going to be spent one way or the other.

About $4 million figures to go to the Bengals' rookie pool with the rest budgeted for other free agents, including Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon.

"The only question is who gets the money," Brown said. "We'll look at different ways to go about it, but it seems to me we have the chance this way of getting a few players. If we had gone the other the way (and bid for Steussie) we would have had just one player and that was it.

" It's tricky to predict how free agency will go," Brown said. "You just never know. I don't care who they are. They have to fit in to a place that's new to them. It's challenge. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's 50-50."

Jim Lippincott, director of college/pro personnel, said Monday

the Bengals are contacting some of the free agents that visited Paul Brown Stadium last month.

The agent for Bears cornerback Walt Harris said he talked to the Bengals briefly Monday. Brian Levy said he's ready to make a deal if they are, but there has yet to be in-depth negotiations. It's also believed Chargers cornerback DeRon Jenkins is on the Bengals' list. But the agent for Bucs corner Ronde Barber said he didn't sense Cincinnati had a strong interest in his client.

The Bengals are still attracted to defensive tackles Dana Stubblefield and Ted Washington at the right price, as well as Steelers end Kevin Henry, an effective role, run-oriented player in head coach Dick LeBeau's system when he was Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator.

"I would think (free agents) would want to settle before the draft," Lippincott said. "Teams are going to think they have filled their needs by the time they get down to their college free agents and their draft choices."

Levy, who says the Bears and Rams are also interested in Harris, says his client isn't panicking.

"Not at that position," Levy said. "At cornerback, youth is not always the best way to go."

Harris has apparently impressed Rams coach Mike Martz, but St. Louis hasn't shown any response to his wishes. That may change when St. Louis gets lightened in the salary cup crunch Wednesday, when their trade of defensive end Kevin Carter is expected to go through to Tennessee.

Angelo Wright, the agent for Washington, is still upset with the Bengals' initial offer and indicated he's got two proposals (one from the Bears) that are better.

"If something comes out of the blue from somebody, we're going to listen," Wright said.

The Bengals hosted Tampa Bay right tackle Jerry Wunsch Monday and he said he's ready to make a decision this week between his old team and the Bengals.

But at the moment, Wunsch doesn't appear to be a fit.

One of the reasons Cincinnati didn't bid with Carolina for Steussie is because the Bengals can get a left tackle with the fourth pick in the draft in Leonard Davis of Texas or Kenyatta Walker of Florida.

Plus, the Bengals are looking at other positions on the market, and also don't seem ready to switch Willie Anderson from right to left tackle.

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