Bengals still seek long Spikes deal

2-7-03, 5:40 a.m. Updated:
2-7-03, 10:50 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

In an effort to pursue other players when NFL free agency opens in three weeks, the Bengals still hope to sign linebacker Takeo Spikes to a long-term deal by the time bidding starts Feb. 28.

The league had originally set the start of free agency as March 4, but has moved it up to the last day of February, a week after the scouting combine concludes in Indianapolis.

Both sides seem to still be feeling each other out on the parameters of such a multi-year contract and are nowhere close. But head coach Marvin Lewis has kept up a running dialogue with the club's perennial leading tackler. Plus, the Bengals apparently still want to keep a long-term option alive because they had their first chance Thursday to designate him a transition or franchise free agent and didn't do it.

"Obviously, if we can get Takeo to sign a long-term contract it affords us the (salary) cap space to acquire other players," Lewis said Thursday. "If we have him resolved by the beginning of free agency, then we have one of our ducks in a row."

Lewis met two weeks ago with Spikes for about 90 minutes and the two said virtually nothing about their first summit since Spikes told the Associated Press he didn't think the Lewis hire was enough to keep him happy in Cincinnati.

But Lewis says he has talked to Spikes on the phone every couple of days since and no doubt is trying to gauge what kind of mind frame he'll be in if the club does decide to keep him here with a one-year designation that has to be affixed by Feb. 20 and would virtually take him off the market.

Lewis indicated earlier this week he is looking for Spikes to buy into his program if they do designate him for just one year and attend the offseason workouts. But the last two players to be tagged by the Bengals, Carl Pickens and Corey Dillon, didn't show until training camp or beyond.

Asked if Spikes wants to be a Bengal again, Lewis said, "I don't have any question about his mental health. You'd love to have a guy with his passion."

But the price of tagging him a transition free agent is steep. If and when the Bengals send out that letter offering him $4.8 million (the average of the top 10 paid linebackers in the NFL last year), it will give them the right to match any offers, but it will also count against the salary cap.

The unanswered question is, after signing middle linebacker Brian Simmons to a six-year extension last year that averages about $3.8 million per year, can the Bengals afford to put nearly $9 million into two inside linebacking spots before attempting to shore up the perimeter at cornerback and left defensive end?

One answer is that Spikes, along with Simmons, has been their most productive player on defense for the past five years.

If the Bengals do designate Spikes, it figures to be the transition tag and not the franchise tag. Although they don't get compensation if they don't match a transition offer, they do have the ability to take the tag off at any point. They don't have that flexibility with the franchise tag.

Another reason not to go with the franchise tag even though it brings a first- and third-round draft choice if it's not matched? It counts $5.6 million against the cap.

"Both sides have to come up with what is right and fair and we have to be prudent for our football team," Lewis said. B>

NFL EUROPE: The Bengals have assigned linebackers Dwayne Levels and Tito Rodriguez to Barcelona and cornerback Tierre Sams to Rhein for this spring's NFL Europe season.

BILLS COULD HEAR FRIDAY:. Former Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau could join the Bills as soon as Friday after he spent Tuesday checking out Orchard Park and spending time with head coach Gregg Williams and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray before they offered him a job.

The interview and offer is a tribute to the regard the 65-year-old LeBeau has on the defensive side of the ball around the league. Speculation on the job ranges form coaching the third-down package, to assisting in the secondary, to simply being another pair of eyes for Williams and Gray during practice and game planning. Bills President Tom Donahoe, who knows him from their days in Pittsburgh in the mid-90s, figures it will be somewhere on the field.

"Dick is just so good with scheme that he's a tremendous asset to any defense," Donahoe said. "From what I understand, Gregg and Jerry have been fine with it, they were just talking about exactly what his duties would be and Dick wanted to take some time on it. I think we're going to hear something by the end of the week."

Buffalo is a nice fit for LeBeau. Not just because of Donahoe, but because it keeps him within driving distance of his family in the Columbus and Cincinnati areas. He'll also be reunited with his defensive line coach with the Bengals in Tim Krumrie, as well as extend his string of coaching and playing in the NFL to 45 straight seasons.

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