2-25-04, 5:40 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Free agency starts in a week and all indications are the Bengals won't sign any of their eight unrestricted free-agents in a group that includes starters Rich Braham at center, Mike Goff at right guard, free safety Mark Roman, and strong safety Rogers Beckett.
In the calm before the storm, the Bengals are most likely preparing their one-year offers they are going to send to all seven restricted free agents later this week to retain the right to match. The group includes leading rusher Rudi Johnson, a running back expected to get the highest tender possible at $1.8 million. The others, such as kicker Shayne Graham, cornerback-safety Kevin Kaesviharn, tight end Tony Stewart, and wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, are probably looking at the lowest tender of $628,000.
An early sign that the Bengals aren't going to pursue former Giants and Redskins linebacker Jessie Armstead came Wednesday afternoon when his agent said he hasn't heard from the Bengals in the 24 hours after his client's release from Washington. But Drew Rosenhaus also said that the five-time Pro Bowler would be interested in Cincinnati after playing for head coach Marvin Lewis during the 2002 season.
Yet Armstead, 33, looks to be too long in the tooth for a defense trying to rebuild. He played two seasons with the Redskins after nine years in New York, and had a team-high 6.5 sacks and a forced fumble this past year.
Last week at the NFL scouting combine, Lewis said the Bengals and their own free agents had different values on their services and didn't expect any of them to sign before free agency starts March 3. Braham, 33, has been there and done that. First in 2001, when he was on the market for 10 days before re-signing , and then last year when re-signed the week as backup after the Bengals didn't take a center in the draft.
"Patience," Braham said. "You have to be patient."
Braham, their 10-year veteran who came of the bench at age 33 to stabilize the offensive line for the last 15 games, thinks he may be more attractive to teams this time around because the Bengals don't have a right-to-match clause in his contact like it did last year.
"I also think it helps that the team is coming off a good season and I think I had a good year," Braham said. "You don't want a guy coming off a 2-14 year and putting him into your program. It will be interesting to see what happens. I'm not mad or anything. It's a business and we've traded numbers and it's just not there yet."
Braham has a chip with the quarterback derby. If the Bengals decide on Carson Palmer, they certainly don't want to put him behind a rookie center , and bringing in a free agent might slow things down as he learns the offense. It's not easy. The Bengals saw what happened when they moved Goff to center in preseason and then had to go with Braham after the opener.
Also in Braham's favor is that it's not a particularly deep free agent class, with Mike Flynn, Chris Bober and Bob Hallen the marquee center names. Still, Braham wants to come back to the team for which he has made 115 starts, second to Willie Anderson's 120.
"It was fun last year," Braham said. "I still think I can play two or three more years. I'm just looking for something fair, that's all."
Braham made the minimum $655,000 last season, so he's probably looking to make more than this year's minimum, but he wouldn't talk contract.
"That's why I've got an agent, and he's working on it," Braham said.
In other news Wednesday, Joe Bailey, one of the Houston lawyers for left tackle Levi Jones, said his client plans to appear in court for a preliminary appearance Thursday in which not much is going to happen, except to lay out the next steps for an incident stemming from an altercation outside a club the night of the Super Bowl. Bailey said it's highly unlikely the case is going to be settled, but he maintains Jones is innocent of the Class B misdemeanor of interfering with police.