Bengals upbeat on signing challenges

6-26-01, 12:10 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals have yet to sign one of their seven draft choices, but they've got a lot of company when it comes to league-wide inertia.

They are one of seven teams who haven't done a deal, while seven other teams have signed just one drafted rookie. Only 74 of the 246 players taken in the April draft are in the fold, including one first-rounder in Atlanta's Michael Vick and two second-rounders in Atlanta's Alge Crumpler and Pittsburgh's Kendrell Bell.

Even though the Falcons supplied Cincinnati two potential obstacles in structuring the deals for Vick and Crumpler with features the Bengals loathe, club executive vice president Katie Blackburn doesn't expect major problems.

"This year is different because of the restrictions on the collective bargaining agreement (CBA)," Blackburn said Monday. "But as camp gets closer, we'll be spending more and more time on it."

Because the CBA wasn't extended for another few years until earlier this month, there can be no rookie contract beyond six years. Unable to pro-rate a huge bonus over more than six years, Atlanta gave Vick guaranteed money spread over a couple of years instead of a big signing bonus up front.

The Bengals have indicated they prefer to do the conventional big bonus and no guaranteed money. But Blackburn hasn't ruled out any options and the Vick contract is no doubt under heavy scrutiny by agent Jim Steiner for Bengals defensive end Justin Smith, the fourth pick in the draft.

And according to CBS Sportsline.com, Crumpler, picked a spot ahead of Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson in the second round, signed a five-year deal that

voids to four years. The Bengals' desire to give voidable years only to first-round picks played a role in last season's three-week holdout by second-rounder Mark Roman.

But the Bengals have also been on a roll the past year. Last season, No. 1 pick Peter Warrick signed six weeks before training camp. They also secured contract extensions with Willie Anderson and Oliver Gibson, Corey Dillon's team-record contract, and a lightning-quick deals for Richmond Webb and Lorenzo Neal.

In fact, a year ago at this time three Bengals' draft picks were signed. But Vick's deal and Cleveland's release of fifth-rounder Jeremiah Pharms have allowed Atlanta and the Browns to give more money out of their rookie pool to complicate life for other teams.

Still, the Bengals think they can get their people signed before they have to report to training camp in 25 days.

On Monday, Jim Lippincott, the Bengals' director of college/pro personnel, invoked the wisdom of Giants Super Bowl General Manager George Young.

"He used to say there wasn't much reason to get it done before July 4," Lippincott said. "Each club has its own budget and formula, but 90 percent of it is done by slotting."

"Slotting," refers to the practice of paying the rookie according to what the other players drafted around him receive. But that's going to be tough for teams like the Bengals near the top of the rounds with the Falcons and Browns. With Atlanta and Cleveland able to jack their deals from last year by about 10 percent and the Bengals' rookie pool squeezed by their conventional approach to the first pick, Cincinnati could have trouble sliding some guys in.

But the club wants to stand on its budget rather than slot, and there are agents simply looking for a market deal rather than a straight slot. Such as the agent for Bengals third-round pick Sean Brewer, a tight end from San Jose State.

"If some (agent) gets a crummy deal behind me and it's not a market deal, I don't think that should be held against me," Bill Heck said. "Just like it would be tough to hold that against the Bengals if some other teams have an extraordinary situation."

Ironically, Heck's agency represents the two highest signed third-rounders in the eighth pick in Saints linebacker Sedrick Hodge and the 13th in Chiefs defensive tackle Eric Downing. CBS Sportsline says Hodge got $515,000 to sign and Downing $493,000. But Heck says even though no one around Brewer's fourth slot has signed, he's ready to do a deal.

"I'm not going to wait for people to come in if we think we've got a good deal," Heck said. "We still have some things we're working on with them."

Heck has had a few talks with Bengals vice president Paul Brown. Ken Zuckerman, the agent for fifth-rounder Victor Leyva, has been talking for a few weeks with Bengals scout Duke Tobin.

It looks like slotting hasn't worked yet for Leyva, a guard from Arizona State. The top pick in the fifth round at No. 133, according to CBS Sportsline, got 128,000 to sign. The third pick at No. 135 got 125,000. Leyva is waiting at No. 136. The problem could be that the Falcons doled out the number at 133 and 134 is the Browns' pick for the released Pharms.

But Zuckerman knows there is more to it than numbers.

"Maybe I'd like to see some more teams come in, maybe they would, too. But I don't think anything is cut and dried," Zuckerman said. "It's hard to compare one team to another because they're all in different situations. We've had good talks with them and I'm sure we can get something done. Victor is looking forward to getting into camp. That's best for him and it's best for the team and that's what we're working to do."

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