Bengals tackle Thornton

3-4-03, 11:20 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The first things Nicolas Luchey probably noticed Tuesday on his "visit," to Paul Brown Stadium were that even the entry codes and the weight room are different.

Which is why Marvin Lewis wanted him to take "a visit," even though Cincinnati has been Luchey's only home in the NFL since the Bengals took him in the fifth round of the 1999 draft.

"It's different. I think he felt that way and that s good," Lewis said. "I didn't know him and he didn't know me and it's better now because we didn't do it over the phone."

The Luchey talks were probably the closest thing the Bengals came to a deal Tuesday and he could be back in the fold quickly if things go as well as they did Tuesday. But it sounds like they also made a huge push on the Titans' John Thornton, a highly-regarded young defensive tackle who has been in the middle of Tennessee's recent playoff runs.

"John said he was overwhelmed and said he would love to play there with what Marvin Lewis is doing," said Harold Lewis, Thornton's agent. "If something can get done, he'd love to be there."

The 6-2, 300-pound Thornton, who left for New England without a deal Tuesday night, has become a key player in the Bengals' free-agency picture. With Raiders defensive tackle Sam Adams still unable to get what he thinks is a satisfactory offer over the long term from Cincinnati, he is set Thursday to visit Buffalo, the city, where ironically comes the buzz that the Bills could be prepping an offer sheet for Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes in the next week.

Angelo Wright, Adams' agent, said Tuesday night that his client still has no plans to come to Cincinnati to meet with Lewis, his defensive coordinator from the Super Bowl XXXV days with Baltimore.

"I think Cincinnati is still waiting to see what the market is going to be for Sam," Wright said. "The only way I'll send him in there is if we've got a deal."

The Bengals apparently tried to get a deal Tuesday with Thornton, who will be four years younger than Adams on Opening Day. Marvin Lewis wouldn't rule out signing both, but when asked about Adams, he said, "I don't know about Sam. Sam hasn't been here. We're just trying to work all the options. We'll see."

Trying to get a deal with Thornton was tough Tuesday because both his agents were on the road at college workouts. Plus, Harold Lewis said he has committed to trips to New England Tuesday night, Minnesota Wednesday night, and Arizona Thursday night.

"But the minute we think we get the offer, we'll stop traveling and take the deal," Harold Lewis said.

Harold Lewis said Thornton liked the fact Marvin Lewis is running the show, that it's near his college stomping grounds of West Virginia, and it's close to his hometown of Philadelphia. Plus, a close college teammate, Canute Curtis, is a Bengals linebacker.

The Bengals like Thornton's youth, his athleticism, and his production for a playoff team. The Bengals also liked the way he played end when he moved outside against them. Word out of Tennessee is that Thornton's best games at end came against the Bengals and Jaguars.

Besides Luchey and Thornton, Texans receiver/returner Jermaine Lewis and Chiefs defensive end Duane Clemons also visited and left without contracts.

Marvin Lewis remained upbeat despite having players leave without a deal. Apparently that had been part of the deal with Jermaine Lewis, that he would make at least another visit before talking contract.

"It's not really any different than what their plans had been," Marvin Lewis said. "I think in all the guys' cases, it will end up pretty good. It's going to be an individual case."

Luchey's case is pretty simple. After years of sitting, he wants to play. He has said in the past that he is attracted to staying in Cincinnati because he already knows running backs coach Jim Anderson and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. And there's that clear shot he has at the No. 1 job with Lorenzo Neal's departure to San Diego. Throw in his regard for Lewis, and maybe (who knows?) the Bengals have him in the fold as early Wednesday.

"He's evolving into a different role that he was in last year," Marvin Lewis said. "The guy he was sitting behind joined another team. I think he proved to his coaches he could do some things as a ball carrier and he already had a certain role in the offense."

Luchey can block and catch as either a fullback or H-Back, which is a move tight end type. He also played some conventional tight end last year.

The guy who doesn't seem like an immediate fit is the 6-5, 272-pound Clemons, 28, a former No. 1 pick of the Vikings. The Bengals already have a starting right end in Justin Smith and Clemons is coming off a two-sack season.

Jermaine Lewis, a two-time Pro Bowl returner who has already visited Miami, has a long connection with Marvin Lewis. They both arrived in Baltimore in 1996, Marvin as the defensive leader and Jermaine as a fifth-round pick out of hometown Maryland.

Marvin thinks Jermaine can not only ignite the Bengals' weak return games, but also supply a vertical threat down field as a wide receiver. But even though Jermaine plays the same slot position as Peter Warrick, a No. 1 pick from 2000, Marvin says everyone will be able to get on the field.

But a Jermaine signing would immediately jack training camp speculation. Do the Bengals keep five or six receivers? And who goes if Jermaine stays?

If Marvin knows about Jermaine, just think about the Bengals. He spring boarded to his first Pro Bowl in 1998 a during Sept. 27 nationally televised game from Baltimore in which he scalded the Bengals on an 87-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 73-yard touchdown catch on the way to 236 total yards in a 31-24 victory.

The next season, he had his longest punt return of the year (33) against the Bengals, and in 2000 he had a season-high four catches in Cincinnati. He also made his first start in Cincinnati on Dec. 8, 1996 and caught a touchdown pass and two other balls for 43 yards in a 21-14 loss.

Six of his seven career return touchdowns have come off punts with the lone kick return coming in the Ravens' 34-7 win over the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. It pretty much decided things because it answered Ron Dixon's return that gave the Giants momentary life and finished off the first back-to-back kick returns in Super Bowl history.

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