Braham at center of switch

4-30-03, 7:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

What hasn't Rich Braham done in nine seasons, 103 games, 100 starts, and 56 as the center of the Bengals' line?

Now he can add backup guard and center to the list after signing a one-year deal Wednesday that is believed to be in the minimum $775,000 range. Braham, 32, who has been with the Bengals longer than any of his teammates, has no problems showing up Friday for the beginning of minicamp as a backup.

"Not at all," Braham said. "Everybody starts to get old. In the life of football, you have to play your roles and the position they want you to play."

After starting 44 straight games at left guard from 1996-98, Braham moved to center and it looks like that's what the Bengals are going to ask right guard Mike Goff to do at this minicamp as they attempt to get a look at second-round pick Eric Steinbach in his

All-American spot at left guard. That means left guard Matt O'Dwyer goes to right guard, where he played in his last season with the Jets in 1998. Head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive line coach Paul Alexander stressed this line isn't written in stone and they are ready to try a bevy of combinations.

"We've got a lot of players and a lot of options," Alexander said.

Now they have Braham back and that is making everyone breathe a bit easier, except maybe some of the backup offensive linemen. Although the Bengals didn't make a run to re-sign him until after the draft, they value his toughness and smarts. Last year, he started 15 games despite a surgically-repaired elbow and sprained ankle. In 2001, he played all 16 games even though he was diagnosed with a herniated neck disc after the third game.

"I wasn't under contract and if they could fill the void, they would," Braham said. "Obviously in the draft they didn't get what they wanted, or in free agcncy. That's pretty much what it came to."

After the Browns took Notre Dame center Jeff Faine with the 21st pick in the first round, the Bengals never really had a shot at getting one of the top centers. They could have grabbed Wisconsin's Al Johnson or Iowa's Bruce Nelson at the top of the second round, but obviously they had Steinbach rated higher, and Johnson and Nelson were gone by the top of the third. They could have got Northwestern's Austin King with their second pick in the fourth round and Boston College's Dan Koppen at the top of the fifth, but the club went elsewhere.

The Bengals also made an offer to Titans center Gennaro DiNapoli three weeks ago, but he was looking to go back to Tennessee and Cincinnati wasn't looking to up the ante with Braham out in free agency and the Bengals having the right to match him.

As usual, Braham quietly accepted his new role.

"It's an opportunity to play football," he said, "and that's what I'm looking to do."

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