Copeland copes on line

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Defensive end John Copeland has been around long enough to figure it all out. Long enough to play eight seasons in the NFL and turn 31 the second week of the upcoming season.

So he knows that's part of the problem while watching the Bengals chase fresher, younger blood. They signed one defensive tackle in Tony Williams and continue to court a bevy of ends and tackles in free agency.

Plus, Copeland, the Bengals No. 1 pick in 1993, would like to move back to left end after a season at tackle. But Vaughn Booker, looks to be the incumbent. Truth be told, the Bengals just aren't sure where people are headed on the line until the dust clears from next month's NFL Draft.

"I think about it," said Copeland Tuesday of the possibility of getting cut. "I can't go into this thing blind and stupid. I don't know if I'm going to make it. They probably don't know if I'm going to make it. You have to train for the best and expect the worst."

The Bengals spoke with the agent for Cardinals defensive end Simeon Rice Tuesday in an effort to gauge what he wants. Reports have him talking about a one-year deal in Tampa Bay for only about $3 million because the Bucs are so tight against the cap and the Bengals are probably thinking they can get him more cash in a long-term deal.

The Bengals have also kept in touch with tackle Dana Stubblefield, the Cincinnati prep product who apparently didn't get what he sought in New England when the Patriots offered $2 million per year. But the Pats could be poised to step up for Stubblefield after releasing Henry Thomas Tuesday, leaving them without a tackle with Chad Eaton now in Seattle.

Copeland, plagued by injuries virtually his entire career, figures the Bengals have to do something after producing 26 sacks that were ahead of only Arizona's 25 last year.

Copeland took one for the team last year when he moved to tackle after Booker and Tom Barndt got hurt. He had just one sack, but he's historically tougher against the run than the pass, where he has averaged three sacks per season.

"I'm not surprised," said Copeland of the parade of visits. "We've had problems on the defensive line and they're trying to make it better. It's just a situation where I have to step it up. At 30, you never know when they may say, 'John, you're too old,' or 'John, you're making too much money.'"

Right now, the Bengals haven't said any of that. They consider Copeland, who counts $3.32 million this year against the salary cap, to be a valued veteran who plays hard and plays hurt.

He arrived Tuesday at Paul Brown Stadium for the off-season workouts that net him $350,000. His five-year, $15 million deal runs out after the 2002 season.

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