3-26-01, 6:35 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
PALM DESERT, Calif. _ Bengals Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon is still very much an option for the Browns and is likely to visit Cleveland in the next few weeks after his agent met with the club here this past weekend.
But Browns President Carmen Policy said Monday any contact with Dillon isn't likely until after the April 21-22 NFL Draft, when the Browns could solve their problem with the third pick.
Policy also indicated many elements have to come together if an offer sheet is presented to Dillon. But the club clearly is attracted to his steel-belted productivity for an AFC Central rival.
"It would be a visit, talking, exchanging viewpoints," said Policy of the contact the Browns have planned. "It would probably be after the draft. It could be conceivably before, but I would think after. We have the advantage with his restricted nature that we don't have a deadline before the draft."
The deadline is July 15, when Dillon's rights switch back exclusively to the Bengals. But there are issues for Cleveland regarding Dillon, not least of which is that the Browns are still evaluating the running backs they can take in the first, or even the second round of the draft.
There are also factors the Browns are considering:
_When asked if Dillon had the same character qualities as Tim Couch and Courtney Brown that convinced the Browns to draft them, Policy said that would be determined in an extensive interview process with new head coach Butch Davis, as well as Policy and owner Al Lerner.
_Policy, still stinging from a $500,000 fine for salary cap violations while with the 49ers, said the Browns have taken great pains to manage their cap to where local and national reports put their room under at about $7 million. It's believed Dillon is looking for at least $15 million in the first year of the contract, but Policy said the Browns don't want to dump a lot of money into future years.
But Dwight Clark, Cleveland's director of football operations, said the Browns don't mind shoving money into the future for players they know will play for the length of their contracts. With Dillon staring at a six-year deal at age 26, the odds are good he'd be around until 32 even though running back is one of the league's most fragile positions.
_Policy also said a potential offer sheet to Dillon won't include a dreaded "poison pill," a clever clause that would make the contract virtually unmatchable for the Bengals.
"In San Francisco, I never permitted a poison pill to be incorporated into any of our offer sheets," said Policy who got burned by Pierce Holt in the first year of free agency. "Because ultimately that pill has to be swallowed by somebody and if the contract isn't matched , you're the swallower."
With Friday's signing of tackle Ross Verba., the Browns' pad under the cap is slowly shrinking. BSsportsline.com reported the cap hit for Verba's four-year, $16 million deal is $1.85 million.
But Clark said, "We've still got a lot cap room and have an owner that wants to compete right now and he's given us the green light to get what we need."
Clark admitted Bengals President Mike Brown's vow to match virtually any offer for Dillon has had a somewhat chilling effect. He laughed when asked why the Browns don't just assume the Bengals will match a wild offer and make the offer to simply foul up a division rival's salary cap situation.
"We've thought about that," Clark said with smile. "If we get into the Corey Dillon thing seriously, we just want the player. We're not doing it to screw anybody up. If we get into it, it's because we want the guy. It's possible. The guy's a good player."
Clark said the Browns should have a handle on the draft's running backs by the end of next week and indicated that would have an impact on what they decide to do with Dillon.
"It could be after the draft," Clark said. "If there's a guy we want and he's taken before we pick, then we're back into free agency."
The Browns' new ownership has continually pushed the idea of drafting and signing a certain kind of player. When the Cleveland media asked Policy Monday if Dillon had that character, he said, "I don't know. . . until extensive interaction between Corey and the coach primarily. And if that passes muster, between Corey and the rest of the organization. And at last, amongst Corey, Al Lerner and myself."
Policy acknowledged some of Dillon's rocky off-field moments, but didn't write him off because of them.
"There's two sides to every story. There's two faces to every profile," Policy said. "Where there's a negative, there's a positive. (Dillon) is an issue on our part through the month of April."