Brooking setting market for Spikes?

2-21-03, 4:30 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

INDIANAPOLIS _ At least one possible suitor for Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes said Thursday his team won't be scared away by the transition tag when free agency opens a week from Friday

But it remains to be seen if Bills President Tom Donahoe and counterparts from teams like the Saints, Vikings, and Dolphins will give Spikes the reported $10.5 million signing bonus the Falcons gave middle linebacker Keith Brooking Thursday as part of what ESPN.com reported as a $41 million deal over seven years.

It's a big question if the Bengals will. The Bills already impacted them in free agency this week when they used the franchise tag to take off the market Peerless Price, a player the Bengals find attractive because his speed fills a need at wide receiver.

Spikes had no comment on Brooking's deal Thursday night ("No matter what I say it's going to be taken the wrong way") and his agent, Todd France, declined to respond until he sees the official numbers.

Spikes bristled when the Bengals tagged him last week, which means by offering him a one-year deal for $4.8 million the club retained the right to match any offer. But unlike the franchise tag, the transition stipulates the Bengals don't receive compensation if they don't match an offer sheet in seven days and lose him.

"It makes it more challenging," Donahoe said of pursuing a transition free agent. "One of the problems with the tag is a lot of times you feel like you're doing somebody else's work and that can discourage you. But I'm not saying it would eliminate us from doing it."

Donahoe said the biggest problem for the Bills would be waiting for the response on the offer sheet, which is a period of a week in which the offer would count against Buffalo's salary cap.

"It essentially takes you out of the market for seven days," Donahoe said. "I don't know of anybody that, faced with matching a transition tag, that hasn't waited right until the end."

The Bengals weren't surprised when several free agents they could have pursued were tagged with the franchise designation, virtually taking them out of the pool because compensation is two first-round draft picks.

Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister and safeties Donovin Darius of the Jaguars and Tebucky Jones of the Patriots were among the players to receive franchise designations before the Thursday deadline. Price, who is coming off the best season of his four-year career with 94 catches for 1,252 yards, got tagged earlier in the week with the franchise designation that gives him $5.01 million this year.

Ironically, the Bills are tussling with former Bengals receiver Tim McGee, Price's agent, as Donahoe called for the talks to become more two sided.

"It's a last resort," said Donahoe, pledging to attempt to get a long-term deal done. "We felt we don't have an option. We want to try and keep the player and the only way to be assured you can continue to talk to the player is use the tag.

"It's not an ideal situation," Donahoe said. "It costs the team more (for the salary cap number) and the player doesn't like it. But just because the tag is on him now doesn't mean it's necessarily going to be on him forever."

Donahoe said he's also leaving all options open when it comes to Price and acquiring free agents, which means trades. He said the club is looking to upgrade at linebacker and on the defensive line.

Unlike Brooking, Spikes has yet to make a Pro Bowl. But he has led the Bengals in tackles four of his five seasons and was selected a pick later than Brooking in the 1998 NFL Draft with the 13th choice.

Brooking became the fifth player in Falcons' history to make 200 tackles last season. Spikes is the third player the Bengals have had (Jim LeClair, Tim Krumrie) to win four team tackling titles. Brooking plays the middle and Spikes plays the outside, but both stay on the field for all three downs.

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WEBB CUT:** The Bengals picked up $4 million under the salary cap when they released veteran tackle Richmond Webb Thursday, but that is probably how much their draft picks are going to cost. ESPN.com reported before the move that the Bengals had about $9 million under the cap, with nine teams having more. Nearly $5 million of their space is taken up by the tender offer of $4.8 million to linebacker Takeo Spikes.

Webb couldn't be reached for comment Thursday, but Steve Zucker, his agent, said

the release came as no surprise because it had been discussed in advance. He never expected the club to pay him the scheduled $4 million this season, the last of a three-year contract. Although Webb turned 36 last month and is coming off a season-ending torn pectoral muscle, Zucker said his client wants to continue to play. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said he wants to leave open the option of re-negotiating with Webb to back up last year's No. 1 pick at left tackle, Levi Jones, but Zucker said he's had no discussions with the club about it. He'll keep it in mind when he starts to find a job for Webb next week.

"Richmond has done some great things in the league and he's the kind of guy you want to have in your locker room," Lewis said. "See how things work out in the future. There may be an opportunity to possibly sign him back if that's something he would like to do and it works out great for us. It gives us a veteran guy with a great temperament."

Webb, a future Hall of Fame candidate, signed with the Bengals after seven Pro Bowl seasons protecting Dan Marino's blindside at left tackle in Miami. After the Bengals allowed 52 sacks in 2000, Webb was a major reason they allowed their fourth fewest sacks ever (28) the following year.

Webb began last season knowing Jones would take his spot at some point during the year. The moment came sooner rather than later when Webb got hurt in the fourth game against Tampa Bay. With backup tackle Jamain Stephens a free agent, the Bengals are in the market for a third tackle to play behind Jones and right tackle Willie Anderson.

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C.D. UPDATE:** Bengals running back Corey Dillon left Cincinnati after the season an extremely frustrated man, vowing not to answer any phone calls from the 513 area code. Six weeks away must be the magic time because he spoke with head coach Marvin Lewis for the first time last week.

"I thought he sounded good," Lewis said. "He was upbeat. Hey, he's a football player and he knows he's at that point in his career he has to win. From what I understood, he's going to be here at some point for the workouts."

SLANTS AND POSTS: Despite the flurry of franchise designations Thursday, there are still untagged free agents the Bengals can look at who could fit, such as Arizona's tandem of quarterback Jake Plummer and receiver David Boston, as well as defensive ends Hugh Douglas of Philadelphia and Vonnie Holiday of Green Bay. Boston, because of off-field baggage, and Plummer, because of price and need, are likely long-shots for Cincinnati. . .

Donahoe said it's his "gut feeling," that former Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau is going to take

a job that has been offered by head coach Gregg Williams assisting defensive coordinator Jerry Gray. But there is no hurry because the job has been tailored for LeBeau and no one else if he decides not to take it. Right now, it's "open-ended." Donahoe doesn't mind at all after Williams and Gray met with LeBeau in Buffalo earlier this month.

"Anyone who knows Dick and his career and his character knows that he wanted to make sure everyone felt comfortable, that he wouldn't be stepping on anybody's toes, or people wouldn't see him as a threat," Donahoe said. . .

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis wouldn't divulge what was discussed at Wednesday night's dinner with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and members of the league's diversity committee. Nor did the other two African-American head coaches, Herman Edwards of the Jets and Tony Dungy of the Colts.

"We know that we're going in the right direction," Edwards said. "Hopefully, five or six years from now, a minority coach won't have to stand up here and talk about it. . .My issue is really not the National Football League. It's corporate America. We don't seem to talk about that."

Edwards would like to see more progress, but he thinks the league is providing a good model for other businesses because minority hiring is out on the table: "You have to have conversation and communication. That's what the National Football League has done." . .

Miami center Brett Romberg no doubt raised some eyebrows in Columbus when asked about Buckeyes defensive end Kenny Peterson: "I thought Anderson was better. No. 45. Everybody when they talk about the Ohio State defensive tackle, I always think they're talking about Anderson."

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