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Can cap fit Wilson, Hawkins?

1-15-01, 11:00 p.m.


They want to wrap up defensive cornerstones Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons with long-term deals. They want to keep free-agents Reinard Wilson and Artrell Hawkins on their improving defense. And then they want to use free agency to fill holes that include tight end and possibly safety.

But the Bengals know their wish list is going to look different than the Opening Day 2002 roster, thanks to a salary cap that is tighter than the one last offseason that allowed them to lock up running back Corey Dillon for five years and sign four free-agent starters.

"You can't get everyone you want," said Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn Tuesday. "Ideally, we want to get Takeo and Brian re-signed and bring in several free agents. There's not enough cap room to do everybody. We're not in bad shape, but we don't have the room we had last year. We can get some things done and right now we're trying to figure out what we can and can't do. I'm not saying we can or can't do anything. It remains to be seen."

Both the agents for Spikes and Simmons seek deals before the beginning of the '02 season. Since they have one more year left on their contracts, Blackburn indicated Tuesday the club won't begin negotiating with them until the club gets the '02 free-agent picture cleared up. But that could change, too, she said.

What remains to be seen is if Wilson and his team-high nine sacks, along with Hawkins, the team's only free-agent starter, come back. Under one of the most realistic scenarios, they won't because Wilson might be

too expensive for a part-time player and because they might be able to replace Hawkins with a first-round cornerback.

Wilson's agent reiterated this week his client won't come cheap.

"He'll be one of the most sought after defensive players in free agency," David Levine said. "If they lose Reinard, that's a huge step back for this defense. The pass rush was a big reason that the cornerbacks who aren't household names held up pretty well."

That an agent would utter such things as his client is on the verge of stepping into the market isn't exactly news. But nine sacks are nine sacks and last year Marcellus Wiley rode 10.5 sacks with Buffalo to an $11 million signing bonus with the Chargers. Kenny Holmes went large with $5 million when he brought his eight sacks to the Giants from the Titans.

Simmons summed it up best for his team and his teammate.

"As far as the Bengals paying him that kind of money if he doesn't start, they'd have a tough time swallowing that," Simmons said. "Unless they decide to start him."

It doesn't look like the Bengals are going to do that. He would have to start at left end because of the presence of Justin Smith at right end. But the Bengals aren't sure that at 270 pounds, Wilson would hold up consistently against the run on the strong side and feel he's best suited as a pass rusher. Wilson thinks he can play the run and would no doubt bolt to a club that thinks he can play three downs.

While Wilson thinks he's an every-down player, the Bengals think they might be able to replace Wilson's nine sacks on passing downs with a three-man rotation of pass-rush/end linebackers Steve Foley, Adrian Ross and Canute Curtis.

Of the three, only Ross had a sack this year and Foley has 9.5 of the trio's 16.5 career sacks. But then, none have rushed consistently opposite Smith's 8.5 rookie sacks.

If Wilson put himself in line for a big payday, what about Hawkins? The free-agent market for corners became tighter last week when two re-upped with their own teams.

Green Bay signed cornerback Mike McKenzie to a five-year, $17.1 million extension that included a $3.5 million signing bonus and a first-year base salary of $450,000, giving him a cap figure of $1.2 million next season. The Bears' R.W. McQuarters signed a five-year, $21 million extension that included a $6 million signing bonus. The top-ranked free-agent cornerback will no doubt be Baltimore's Duane Starks.

Don Yee, Hawkins' agent, declined comment Tuesday.

Hawkins said at the end of the season he would like to return to Cincinnati, where he has played all four of his NFL seasons as well as his college career. But he also said he wouldn't mind seeing what the market might hold for a starting cornerback.

And what will the market yield? Will teams see Hawkins as the struggling cornerback who lost his job last season and had to win it back in the last training camp? Or will they view him as a starting cornerback coming off his best year with a career-high three interceptions?

Is he a $1.5 million player or a $2.5 million player? If it's the latter, the Bengals probably can't re-sign Hawkins and get deals for Spikes, Simmons and other veteran free agents.

The Bengals don't have the $15 million under the cap the national reports said they had last year at this time. When they went nearly $1 million over the '01 cap and then saw next season's salaries for Smith, Jon Kitna and Peter Warrick escalate with their stats, the club's '02 cap shrunk.

"We're going to talk to both Reinard and Artrell and hope we can get something," Blackburn said. "But a lot of this is going to be wait and see."

And if expansion Houston calls Wilson or Hawkins with about $20 million to spend on free agents?

"Forget it," Levine said. "Houston is going to get what ever free agents they want."

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