Copeland caps it off

5-24-01, 11:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals wanted an answer from John Copeland by the end of Thursday and now virtually all their salary cap questions are resolved.

When the 30-year-old Copeland signed a two-year deal to return to defensive end for a ninth season in Cincinnati 31 days after he was cut, the Bengals figured to take a cap hit of about $650,000 for this season. That would slide them below the $6 million mark in breathing room, according to figures on various media web sites.

With about $4.5 million needed to sign their draft choices, the Bengals are pretty much at the point where

additions to the roster will have to be balanced by subtractions.

But that won't stop the club from seeking a veteran cornerback if one shakes loose after June 1.

"We're down to the level where we're getting close to the reserve we keep for injuries," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "With the cap going up each year, the reserve has to go up proportionally, so we're about there. We're pretty close to having to let people go if we sign somebody else."

The addition of Copeland, a former first-round pick, could doom another defensive end chosen in the first round in Reinard Wilson. Copeland's versatility as a tackle and end makes him a virtual roster lock in backing up current No. 1 pick Justin Smith at right end.

Also looking as locks are tackles Oliver Gibson and Tony Williams and end Vaughn Booker. Booker's backup, Kevin Henry, and Williams' backup, Tom Barndt, also figure to make it as free agents the club has invested a goodly amount.

If the Bengals keep eight linemen like they have in the past, that figures to pit Wilson against Jevon Langford and Glen Steele for the last spot. And the early edge would have to go to Steele because he and Copeland are the only guys who can play both inside and out.

"We're not going to get married to a certain number and I've already told the players not to pay attention to the depth chart," said head coach Dick LeBeau. "At least not early. The best guys are going to play. John has always played hard for us and I'm confident he's going to produce for us this year. We're better because we got him back."

The Bengals got Copeland back for about one-third of what they were scheduled to give him for the next two seasons, which was about $4.7 million. Agent Tim McGee wouldn't divulge numbers. But going off their recent deals for fullback Lorenzo Neal and left tackle Richmond Webb, roster bonuses and incentives probably put Copeland's total two-year price tag at about $1.5 million.

Still, McGee said money didn't have much to do with it. With Copeland's suitors looking to do something after June 1 (word was the Chargers were interested), McGee is confident he could have got more money elsewhere. Yet LeBeau proved persuasive during three conversations in the last 24 hours.

"John was most concerned about his opportunity to play," LeBeau said. "I tried to be as honest as I could with John. I'm going to give him the opportunity to play and the best guys will play. He probably won't start out as a starter, but who knows?"

LeBeau wanted Copeland back because he plays hard in so many different spots.

"He's played both inside and outside spots, not only in the base, but also in nickel," LeBeau said. "We talked about his role and all I know is that the guy has always played hard for us and we're going to give him a chance to play hard for us again. The number of quality NFL linemen on the roster is encouraging."

The graying of the Bengals continues with the third signing of a thirty something free agent in a month. They could have easily opted for a younger (waiver wire) player at the minimum salary of $477,000.

"It's good to have John back," Brown said. "He's a good guy and he's been a good player here for a long time and it's the right thing that he keeps playing here."

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