BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals' bid to bring defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield back home ended for now when he told the Bengals late Thursday afternoon he wasn't prepared yet to take the Bengals' offer.
The Bengals could turn again to Stubblefield later in free agency, said Bengals director of pro/college personnel Jim Lippincott. But at the moment they are moving on. For instance, they are in negotiations with the highet-priced center on the market in the Ravens' Jeff Mitchell.
With Mitchell and Titans defensive end Kenny Holmes visiting Paul Brown Stadium Thursday, the Bengals needed an answer from Stubblefield on an offer that was believed to be in the $3 million per year range that Vikings defensive tackle Tony Williams signed Tuesday. The Bengals wanted a yes or no so they could move again Friday.
"We'll re-shuffle the deck and make another run at it tomorrow," said Bengals President Mike Brown Thursday. "We like Stubblefield. They were good about it. They want to look around some more and so will we."
Despite Stubblefield's decision to pass, the Bengals are pleased they have picked up one Opening Day starter and another possible starter under the age of 29 during the first week of free agency in Williams and quarterback Jon Kitna.
Along with those players accounting for an estimated $3.5 million against the salary cap this season, the club spent about $20,000 on the first week's recruiting trips to cover first-class plane tickets, meals, and hotel. Two recruits, Kitna and Elvis Grbac, brought their wives.
"Even though we've had some not work out, we think it's turned out about the way we wanted," Brown said. "We're looking for guys that fit us and upgrade us and are going to be able to play for the length of their contracts. We've got two good young guys who are good people and are going to help us."
On Friday, the Bengals have to decide if they will go all-out for the big-ticket price of Holmes while dealing with the visits of defensive ends Simeon Rice and Kevin Henry and wide receiver James McKnight.
The Bengals could decide to use the rest of their money to pursue McKnight, left tackle Ross Verba and maybe a cornerback like Ronde Barber.
In his first official act as a locker-room leader, Kitna urged the Bengals to sign his close friend McKnight. They played in in Seattle together before the 6-1, 200-pound McKnight put himself near the top of the free-agent board with a 52-catch year in Dallas.
Kitna swears his buddy's
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40-yard dash time is still 4.25 seconds after he underwent reconstructive knee surgery before the '99 season. It has to be close. McKnight's 17.8-yard average per catch trailed only Isaac Holt and Randy Moss in the NFC.
"I've already talked to him and he's interested," Kitna said. "I'm telling you, this guy can run. If you put him with Darnay Scott and Peter Warrick in the slot, it's going to be tough to stop. When we were in Seattle, he would scare (famed Chiefs cornerbacks) Dale Carter and James Hasty to death. He's something special."
McKnight, a South Florida native who turns 29 in June, arrived in Cincinnati Thursday night after visiting the Dolphins in Miami. He told the Miami media the lure of playing at home is strong.
"They put me up in a nice hotel and waking up and seeing that sunrise on the ocean, you can't beat that," said McKnight, who sounded like he only wanted to take two visits. "I don't want to travel around the world. Let's go and get a deal done. I'm looking for security. I'm looking for some place where hopefully they want me to retire."
New Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has been lobbying for McKnight for two weeks. Back in 1994, Bratkowski signed McKnight as an undrafted free agent out of Liberty when he was Seattle's receivers coach and watched him develop from a practice squad spot, to an ace special teamer, to a dangerous receiver.
"He's a good football player. A tough kid who is a great kid and a solid citizen," Bratkowski said. "I'm pretty sure he can still run because I saw him on tape this past year running past a lot of people."
Bratkowski sees McKight as a starter opposite a healthy Scott with Warrick in the slot. Scott and McKnight can play both wide receiver and flanker.