Big move a day away?

6-1-04, 4:20 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Daryl Gardner wasn't here Tuesday when the Bengals began their last week of on-field coaching sessions before the mandatory minicamp. But that doesn't mean he couldn't be here when the sessions end Thursday and wearing No. 99, the last 90s number available.

The Broncos can't make it official until after 4 p.m. Tuesday and cut Gardener to save on the salary cap. Which means the Bengals can't sign him until after 4 p.m. Wednesday. Which means, with this deal reportedly in the works for three months, the anticipation has heightened in and outside the locker room.

The Bengals did make a move Tuesday when they released free agent running back Nick Ayers, a local favorite out of Cincinnati's Glen Este High School and Kentucky's Georgetown College.

At least one Bengal has talked to Gardener recently and he said Cincinnati is where he wants to be. Defensive end Carl Powell is hoping it will be here after he played next to him in the middle of what may have been Gardener's career season in 2002 on a Redskins defensive line that was part of a unit coordinated by a coach named Marvin Lewis.

"If he comes here, he'll make our team much better. I loved playing with him. He loves to play. He'll be in here at 5:30 a.m. ready and lathered," Powell said.

"He brings a lot of tenacity to the game," said Powell, who played mostly tackle in 2002. "Oh my God, just his presence. Just by how big he is and how he runs to the ball and works so hard in the weight room. He doesn't take the little things for granted."

In the worst kept secret this side of the Carson Palmer draft pick, the Bengals have been reportedly ready to sign Gardener since the end of February, when the Broncos decided to release him after suspending him for conduct detrimental to the team during his only season in Denver in which he played just four games.

But the 6-6, 310-pound Gardener, 31, had a much happier time in Washington in 2002 when he played under Lewis. When the deal comes through, the Bengals hope offensive lines now have to double team Gardener like they did two years ago, when he was named a Pro Bowl alternate and the Quarterback Club Redskins Player of the Year during a season he had four sacks along with a career-high 71 tackles.

"John will love playing next to him," said Powell of tackle John Thornton. "He'll get those double teams and John will be working on one-on-one blocks."

Gardener, a No. 1 draft pick out of Baylor in 1996 for the Dolphins, hasn't been afraid to take on teammates and coaches in the past, but the passion also makes him one of the most intense players in the league.

"The guy loves the game," Powell said. "That's why he's so great to play with. He brings it all. That will make us better. So will the other additions to this defense. Like signing (middle linebacker) Nate Webster and moving Kevin Hardy to his natural position outside."

If Gardener is out there Thursday, Powell and Thornton say he'll be on a defense that has responded to finishing tied for 25th in the NFL against the run last year.

"We'll be attacking more up front. I think we'll be more active up front," Thornton said. "It's not that we were readers or anything like that. But we've made some small changes that I only think we'll notice. It's going to help us know where everybody's gap is. There'll be no gray area."

Powell senses the coaches now have a better grasp of how they want the line to play compared to last year. He says he's been having a blast this spring getting used to it.

"It's going to be totally different. We're going to be explosive," Powell said. "There's more leeway. We're going to be penetrating into the gap, be disruptive."

As always, the emphasis is on aggressive speed, and maybe more so after giving up nearly 140 yards per game on the ground. If, and everyone is using the word if, until the deal is signed, Thornton says Gardener should be a nice fit.

"When he was in Miami, I think he was seen as more of a run stopper," Thornton said. "I think he's more than that now, and we're not looking for anybody to take up space. We're looking for guys to make plays and he can make plays."

Also Tuesday, some players were resting some minor dings, such as wide receiver Peter Warrick with a knee and running back Chris Perry with a hamstring, given the first training camp practice is still 60 days away.

Lewis moved the 10 a.m. practice back an hour in an effort to give the coaches more preparation time in meetings.

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