12-05-01, 11:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
At the moment, the Bengals aren't planning to pursue a starting quarterback in free agency or in the first round of the NFL Draft.
But Bengals President Mike Brown won't rule out drafting a quarterback in the middle rounds next April in indicating both Jon Kitna and Akili Smith would more than likely return in '02. At least for now, it appears the eyes of (Houston) Texas won't be on Smith in February's expansion draft.
"After (Kitna and Smith), it's unclear," Brown said before Wednesday's practice. "Given where we are in the salary cap, it's going to curtail us going after a starter in free agency. We've tried that route before of drafting a quarterback in the first round, but other teams seem to be able to find guys in the later rounds and that's a way we can look at going."
The Bengals don't have as much as the $15 million under the salary cap they had heading into last year's free-agency season and they have some pricey decisions to make on a defense that has become the heart of the team.
The Bengals have said they would like to retain both middle linebacker Brian Simmons and right outside linebacker Takeo Spikes before their deals expire after the 2002 season and are considering negotiations during this offseason.
Then there is defensive end Reinard Wilson, a free agent at the end of this season who has quietly asserted himself as the sack producer the Bengals thought he would be when they drafted him No. 1 five years ago.
Wilson ended Tampa Bay's last two drives in regulation with sacks Sunday and the coaches' stats have him tied with Simmons for the team sack lead with 5.5. The NFL is reviewing his official league stat of five. Whatever, even though Wilson is playing pretty much only on passing downs, he's closing in on a free agent's magic number of eight sacks.
David Levine, Wilson's agent, has talked with Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn this week and he's waiting for her to send him some preliminary numbers.
"The ball is in their court," Levine said Wednesday. "Reinard likes it
there. He'd like to come back, but obviously a lot has to be weighed. We have to see what would be on the table for sure and what we think will be out there in free agency and they've still got to work out what they want to do with Takeo and Brian."
Brown wants them all. He has been saying for years that Wilson would be a 10-sack guy if he played on a team that consistently had the lead. Now he's playing part-time for a team that's had the lead for about all of 15 minutes in November and December and he's on pace for eight.
"Reinard has done well, we'd like him back. We think he fits," Brown said. "We'll see if we can get something done."
Wilson is getting it done as a nickel rusher opposite current No. 1 pick Justin Smith, so No. 1 now and No. 1 then have combined officially for 9.5 sacks.
It's the most Wilson has played as a defensive end since he switched from linebacker before last season. In the previous two seasons, he was lucky to get about 10 snaps a game.
But he can still go some without getting a lot of snaps. He says he played about three downs in the first half last Sunday because the Bengals stayed mostly in their base defense. Then he got more work in the second half and came up with his two sacks that came against Bucs veteran right tackle Jerry Wunsch.
"I bull rushed him and then went inside him on the first one," Wilson said. "Then I speed rushed, Brad (Johnson) stepped up in the pocket and I spun into him."
Wilson, switched to right outside linebacker even though he set Florida State's all-time sack record as an end, had a career-high six sacks in 1998. That was the Bengals' last full season in a pure 3-4 defense, in which Wilson was drafted to play the right outside.
"All it is really is I'm on the field more," Wilson said of his improved play. "It's hard to produce when you're standing over by the heater. You have to be on the field."
Levine's pitch to the Bengals is losing Wilson will be a setback and a hardship for Smith because pass rushers need each other to take away double teams.
But will the Bengals be willing to give him Kenny Holmes-like money? Holmes had eight sacks for the Titans in 2000 and then secured a $5 million signing bonus in a deal from the Giants that averaged $4.3 million per year.
"The Bengals brought in guys like Holmes and Simeon Rice (for free-agent visits) and they couldn't get them last year," Levine said. "Now they've already got a guy with tremendous production per play. You'd have to put that with anybody."
But Holmes and Rice are three-down ends. Wilson thinks he can be a three-down end. It will be interesting to see how the Bengals value an effective nickel rush player who didn't have a break-out year until this one.
"I think another reason things are going better is the kind of games we're playing," Wilson said. "They've been close and the other team hasn't been able just to pound it on the ground.
"I'd love to come back," Wilson said. "I think it's turned around. Some close games have slipped away, but I think it's a team that can advance and get to the playoffs and do some good things. It's just taking a little time with (Dick) LeBeau getting everything set."